Raising Grey: Chapter 92—Getting Ready for Christmas

Two more chapters after this one…

This is a work of creativity. As such, you may see words, concepts, scenes, actions, behaviors, pictures, implements, and people that may or may not be socially acceptable and/or offensive. If you are sensitive to adverse and alternative subject matter of any kind, please do not proceed, because I guarantee you’ll find it here. You have been warned. Read at your own risk.

I do not own Fifty Shades Trilogy, or the characters. They belong to E. L. James. I am only exercising my right to exploit, abuse, and mangle the characters to MY discretion in MY story in MY interpretation as a fan. If something that I say displeases you, please, just leave. If you don’t like this story or me, please don’t spoil this experience for everyone. Just go away. For the rest of you, the saga continues…

Chapter 92—Getting Ready for Christmas

ANASTASIA

I’m awakened by small slaps on my face… very small. What the hell?

I open my eyes to my daughter’s chubby little face. It takes me a moment to get my bearings. I’m not quite sure what has happened.

I stretch to find that I’m in my bed, still fully dressed, and Minnie is in her PJ’s. How did we get in this predicament?

Once I’m able to focus a bit more, I realize that my daughter is sealed inside of a three-walled pillow fort, of which my body is the fourth wall. And it suddenly makes sense. Christian put us here. I fell asleep in the window seat with Minnie in my arms. I just didn’t want to sleep alone again, even if it meant being crunched in the dreaded window seat. But I slept like the dead, and awoke to my daughter, not Christian. So, I still don’t know if I slept alone.

“Come on, Minnie Mouse,” I say, getting out of bed and retrieving my babbling baby. “It’s bathtime…”

After a short stint at Helping Hands to make sure the place wasn’t going to crumble to the ground, I let the troops know that I’ll be working from home for the rest of the week and head out. I’ve got to get the house and the meal ready for Christmas in three damn days and I still have a little Christmas shopping left to do. I’m back at home by two and decide that I need a partner in crime. It would usually be Marilyn, but…

“Hey, what are you doing this afternoon?”

“Nothing. I don’t have any appointments until tomorrow. What’s up?”

“I need to do some shopping. Are you up to come with?”

“Sure. Sounds like fun. Where do you want to meet?”

“I’m looking for some particular decorations for the house and the table. Meet me at the Marketplace…”

So, I find myself running around the Marketplace with Maxie in the afternoon, picking out some of the corniest decorations and tchotchkes to turn my house and kitchen and tables into a winter wonderland. It’s Minnie and Mikey’s first Christmas, and I want it to be special.

“Good Lord, Steele, I know you have a mansion, but do you really have room for all this crap you’re buying?” Maxie scolds.

“Actually, I don’t think I have enough,” I reply. “I won’t know until I start putting things together and there’s a hole somewhere.” She stares at me for a moment. “What?”

“Are you okay?” she asks. Oh, no, we’re not having this conversation.

“No, I’m not okay,” I reply. “I found out this weekend that Christmas is going to be at my house. I put off doing decorations because there always seemed to be something more important going on. Now, I’m going to have a house full of guests—some of them from out of town, by the way—and I don’t have a single bulb, light, or piece of garland anywhere. I have no idea how many guests are actually going to be there, and I don’t have the help of my P.A. Quite frankly, I’m a bit panic stricken, but I’m just going to grab some shit, order some groceries, and make it do what it do. You’re invited, by the way.” She raises her brow.

“Ew, when you put it that way, I can see why you’re losing your mind. Thanks for the invite, but Phil and I will be with family. Speaking of P.A., have you heard from Gary yet? I twist my lips.

“Kinda,” I say, handing poinsettias to Chuck and Ben. “I sent the ‘hey bitch’ email to him and I get ‘hey bitch’ back.”

“Ow,” she says.

“Tell me about it,” I say, handing my Amex Black to the vendor. “I’m really starting to resent it. I didn’t do anything wrong and I don’t understand why I’m being ignored and treated this way. The psychiatrist in me can’t be logical right now. We’ve been friends for way too long for this shit.” I sign the receipt and retrieve my copy along with my card. The guys take turns running to the car while I continue shopping.

“You know these things take time,” Maxie says. “I don’t have all the details, but I’m assuming there’s a real hurtin’ put on him since we haven’t heard anything from him in weeks…”

“Max!” I hear a woman’s voice call out to my friend and I turn my head to see who it is.

“Jade, hey,” Maxie says in a friendly voice. Very friendly… familiar. “I thought you had class today.”

“Cancelled, last minute,” Jade says as she closes in on Maxie and they give each other those cheek hugs—the sincere ones, not the air kisses. What’s this? “Now, I’m scrambling to get a meal together for RJ and the boys. You know they’re hopeless without me.” She laughs and Maxie nods before turning to me.

“Ana, this is my friend, Jade. Jade, this is…”

“Ana Grey, of course. Everyone knows Ana Grey.” She smiles widely and extends her hand to me. “Max told me she knows you and I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been just dying to meet you.”

Strange. Max hasn’t told me a thing about you.

“Jade,” I say, returning her smile and accepting her proffered hand. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“At the risk of sounding forward,” she begins, leaning in to me conspiratorially. And here we go. Am I going to get some inappropriate question about my husband’s dick size? “Can we all hang out sometimes? Your fashion sense is insane, and I’d love some tips. I need to come out of the Mom-jean-mu-mu look!”

And I feel like shit.

“Sure,” I say, faking the biggest smile I can.

“Yeah, I’ll set up a lunch or a girl’s day or something,” Maxie intervenes, noting my discomfort.

“You know the rules,” Jade says cheerfully, “plenty of notice please!” She and Maxie laugh sincerely, and I so feel like the outsider. “Wow, Ana Grey shops at the Marketplace like the rest of us mere mortals! I feel so privileged!”

I know it was meant to be a compliment… or I think it was meant to be a compliment, but I still feel a little slighted.

“Well, I’d love to stay and chat,” she says, “but like I said, hungry men at my house. See ya Saturday, Max?” she adds, waving as she’s walking off, thank God.

“I’ll be there,” Maxie says, waving back. When she’s out of sight, Max turns to me.

“I’m sorry, Ana,” Maxie apologizes. For what, not telling me about your new friend sooner? “I didn’t mean to put you on the spot like that. I can fend her off if you don’t want to ‘hang out.’” She makes the finger quotes and I know she’s trying to let me off the hook.

“No, it’s okay,” I tell her. “Whatever is convenient for you guys. At least she didn’t ask me one of those terribly indiscreet sexual questions,” I say rolling my eyes. Maxie’s expression is horrified.

“What?” she inquires.

“Oh, yes,” I say, picking at something in a booth that I’m not even slightly interested in. “Any woman who suddenly feels ‘friendly’ with me will immediately ask me about my husband’s bedroom skills… or his dick size.” Maxie swallows hard.

“Oh, my God, you’re kidding!” she gasps. “I mean, I’m a woman. I can understand the curiosity… but that’s so crass and rude!” I nod.

“Oh, my friend,” I sigh, “you don’t know the half of it. It’s a tragic cross to bear.”

“Well, Jade’s not like that. I promise you,” she says, examining a nearby jewelry box. We’re silent for a moment, then I approach the elephant in the Marketplace.

“So, how did you guys meet?” I ask her, trying not to put too much emphasis on the topic although I’m chomping at the bit to know.

“She’s in my ‘Mommy and Me’ group,” Maxie says, examining the jewelry box more closely, considering the purchase. “She has four boys and her youngest, Blaine, is the same age as Mindy.” She hands the jewelry box to the vendor to be wrapped, finally deciding to purchase it.

“I didn’t know you were in a ‘Mommy and Me’ group,” I say, still trying not to pry, but really wanting to. Who is this Jade person? Why haven’t we met? Why hasn’t Maxie said anything to me about her? And what’s this Max shit? Her name’s not Max—it’s Maxie!

Suddenly, I realize the animated conversation in my head is one-sided and Maxie is looking at me questioning.

“What?” I ask, defensively.

“You got a new beau?” she asks. I frown. Did she hear about the Liam Alienation? I didn’t think that shit was public! Has he been talking to people??

“Why would you ask me that?” I ask, horrified. God, please, don’t let Liam be spreading untruths.

“You have a handful of tightie-whities. Christian doesn’t strike me as the type.” She points to my hands and I look down and realize that in an attempt to appear nonchalant, I’ve fisted two handfuls of briefs. Shit!

“No,” I say, trying to stack the underwear neatly the way I found them. I don’t have an answer for why I’m groping men’s underwear, so I don’t bother to offer one. It’s not like I have to, though. Maxie used to be my therapist. There’s no hiding shit from her.

“Out with it, Steele,” she says, reverting to my maiden name again.

“Out with what?” I say, still organizing the underwear. When I look over at her, she simply raises a brow at me. “I just… didn’t know you made a new friend, that’s all. No big deal.” I shrug, trying to downplay the situation. Maxie smiles at me as she hands the vendor her credit card.

“Ana,” she says, shifting her weight on her feet, “you’re right. It’s not a big deal. We get it, and we don’t hold any ill will, but the Scooby Gang isn’t really the Scooby Gang anymore. Phil and I have had a child. Gary is branching out on love with Marilyn—even though it’s not looking so great these days…” I roll my eyes and nod. “And no offense, but you, Val and Al have pretty much trio’ed off, for good reason. You and Al have always been the closest and now, he’s your corporate attorney—and Val married your brother-in-law, not to mention that whole cancer thing.

“Nobody’s pointing any fingers or complaining about being left out, but… we kinda were. You still include us in celebrations and things, and we know that you still love us, but we just don’t… hang out like we used to, and that’s okay. We’re growing up, but it leaves time and space to make new friends. Those things just happen. As long as you don’t just completely ditch us and leave us in the dust, we’re grown-ups and we know how real life goes. And face it, Steele… you have a new friend or three that hasn’t been introduced to me, and if you don’t, you should get out more.”

She winks at me, causing me to smile and push her with my shoulder. It’s strange seeing my friend make friends that I’m not privy to, or that we didn’t meet together, but she’s right. Things change, people change, and that’s okay, but during the course of those changes, it’s important not to let your valuable friendships fall by the wayside.

I really need to get in touch with Gary…

*-*

Sophie has quite the bit of decorating sense along with her extensive knowledge of food to be so young. She admits that it comes from things like watching Martha Stewart and such, so I’ve enlisted her help in decorating the house for as long as she feels like doing it, along with the unlucky members of the staff. I appear to be spending more time with Sophie than I am with my husband, but it’s also part of making sure that she’s not too bored for her Christmas vacation. It’s going to take all the way until Christmas to get the house finished, and this is a chore that I can’t delegate. We’re down in my parlor with the door closed, all of my wares from the Marketplace along with last year’s Christmas decorations strewn all over the room, trying to decide which decorations should go where.

There’s an insane wreath for the front door, and the “formal” Christmas tree will be in the grand entry with empty wrapped boxes underneath, but how many of the windows should have wreaths… and which ones?

How many lights is too many lights?

Is a life-sized nutcracker soldier at the guard booth a bit too much?

To tinsel or not to tinsel? That is the question…

Wait a minute… crawling babies that like to put everything in their mouths… not to tinsel! Definitely not to tinsel!

Where’s that blueprint of the house Jason showed me once?

Yep, this is going to be an epic undertaking, and I’ve got two days to make it happen… while Scrooge is at work, because I don’t want him kiboshing any of my ideas. I’ll do all the behind-the-scenes things tonight and tomorrow, like decorating the trees that are not in the “in-your-face” places, putting the lights and garland out and creating centerpieces and décor for flat surfaces. Then on Wednesday, we’ll tackle the big stuff, like the Nutcracker soldier, the lighted snowballs for the lawn, and the ice globe lanterns and snowball tree for the backyard. I would literally fight him on any of this if he tried to fight me, but hell, he may not even notice.

At the last minute, I find a nativity scene large enough to go on the lawn next to the drive outside of the gate that wasn’t one of those horrible cut-out scenes. I paid the fortune it costs for overnight shipping so that it’ll be here by Christmas Eve. Then I plot out how many people will be here for Christmas dinner. I lost count at the possibility of 20 – 30, so I just did a menu and grocery list for 40. I thought about having it catered, but that would mean people in my house that I really don’t know at Christmas. So, it looks like I’ll be breaking out the chef’s apron with Ms. Solomon and the staff.

It won’t matter. I’ve decided that since my marriage seems like it’s going through a bit of the for worse parts of our vows, I’m going to start taking joy in some of the things that I did when I was just Ana Steele—like cooking. For the first time, I’m regretting having someone staying in my condo. I wish I could go there and escape like I normally do, but it’s just location. Christian doesn’t spend a lot of time in the common places of the house, so if I plan a kitchen takeover a couple of times a week, he wouldn’t notice either way. Luckily, with the Christmas meal, I can definitely stretch my chef legs as long as I want.

We were able to get so much more done than I thought we would…

Beautiful, lush, green evergreen garland accented with plush red bows and delicate lighting line several doorways and nearly every balustrade except for the main staircase—that has to be done on Christmas Eve.

We managed to get the three trees on the sublevel decorated.

I’ve got a jillion centerpieces and table decorations, from silk flowers with candles and evergreen garland to wine glasses and hurricanes filled with lights, various color bulbs, acorns, and fake snow. They’ll be going on just about every surface that can accommodate them.

There are various wreaths—bulb wreaths, garland wreaths, flower wreaths, etc., on the windows and doors at the back of the house.

By early evening, I’m all tuckered out. My parlor—or workspace—looks like Tropical Storm Shaniqua hit it, but I’ll have to tidy up tomorrow when I get back to decorating.

It’s past dinner time and I’m just not in the mood for a large meal, so I ask Ms. Solomon if she wouldn’t mind making me one of her Hawaiian ham sandwiches. Curious, Sophie asks if she can have one, too. So, Ms. Solomon whips up two of the delicious creations along with a winter drink that makes my head spin.

“What is this?” I ask when I sip the sweet beverage.

“Cranberry-apple cider. I thought you might like a tiny bit of variety from your usual spritzer.”

“It’s delicious!” I exclaim. I look over at Sophie for confirmation, and half her drink is already gone.

“I think it’s a hit. We have to add this to the holiday menu. I’ll get a large drink dispenser tomorrow for easy service,” I say.

“No need, we already have one,” Ms. Solomon says.

“Will it be too much trouble?” I ask. She scoffs and waves me off.

“Not at all. Besides, I’m accustomed to the work that goes into making the holidays special,” she replies.

“It’s going to be a lot of work,” I warn. “I don’t even know how many people are going to be here.”

“More than fifty?” she asks. I shake my head.

“I lost my count somewhere between 20 and 30, and there’s usually a do-drop or three, so I’m preparing for 40.” Ms. Solomon’s brow furrows.

“Do-drop?” she asks. I nod.

“Random people who do tend to drop in… ‘do-drops.’” Realization dawns on her face.

“Okay, that makes sense,” she replies.

“Don’t worry,” I say, “I’ll be right here getting my hands dirty with you.”

“That’s not necessary,” Ms. Solomon scolds. “The staff and I will be able to handle it.”

“Oh, I welcome the task, believe me,” I say, taking another bite of the delectable sandwich.

“May I have another?” Sophie asks. I look over at her plate and there’s nothing left but crumbs. I can’t help but laugh.

“Of course, you can, sweet girl,” Ms. Solomon says as she begins to make another sandwich.

“Good, huh?” I say with a smile. Sophie nods.

“Really good!” she says. “Can you teach me how to make them?” Ms. Solomon raises her eyes to Sophie and it almost looks like she’s about to cry. I await her response, knowing the history of the sandwich.

“Of course,” she says, smiling sadly and hiding the crack in her voice. Her sadness doesn’t get past the very perceptive Sophie.

“I’m sorry,” Sophie says. “I didn’t mean to upset you.” Ms. Solomon shakes her head.

“It’s nothing, child,” she replies. “It’s just that… all these years, people have only asked me to make the sandwiches. They’re so quick and easy to do, but no one has ever asked me to show them how. It’s a good thing, don’t worry. I’m glad to give the recipe to someone new. Come. Get your apron. I’ll show you now.”

I watch with a strange sense of pride while Ms. Solomon shows Sophie how to make the delicious sandwich. Sophie catches on right away and makes a second sandwich for which I must be the guinea pig. She plates it perfectly and sets it in front of me.

“It’s delicious,” I say when I take a bite.

“Tell me the truth,” Sophie says. “Is it different than Ms. Solomon’s? Does it taste like I missed anything or heated the pineapple for too long?” She surprises me with her knowledge of food. She knows that if she heats the pineapple for too  long, it changes the texture and usually the flavor.

“Sophie, it’s perfect,” I say, taking another bite. “May I have some more cider?” I ask with a full mouth of delicious ham, cheese, and pineapple. Ms. Solomon and Sophie laugh at me, and Sophie sits to eat her own sandwich while Ms. Solomon gets me another cider. The sandwich really is very good, and I happily sit there and eat the rest of it while Sophie and I discuss the plans for tomorrow.

We’re both pretty tuckered out after “dinner” and Sophie thanks me for including her in the decorating.

“I remember decorating stuff when Dad was home,” she says. “Me and Mom just… didn’t. I got some gifts and stuff, but the first real anything I remember since Mom and Dad split up was last Thanksgiving with you guys.” I feel sad for her knowing that.

“How do you feel this Christmas?” I ask. “I mean, you know…”

“With Mom being in jail?” she asks. “I don’t know. I don’t even think about it. If she wasn’t in jail, she’d be somewhere getting high, so what’s the difference? When I think about her and everything that happened, it really makes me mad, so I don’t think about it. I try to focus on things that make me happy. Does that make me selfish?”

It’s so sad that this 13-year-old girl has to ask herself questions like this—if it’s selfish for her not to think about her drug-addict mother who tried to sell her for a fix so that she can be happy.

“You’ll have to deal with it one day, but for right now, I think you’re doing just fine,” I reply. She hugs me around my waist and squeezes tight. The gesture catches me off guard and nearly takes my breath away.

“Thank you, Aunt Ana,” she says, her voice angelic. I embrace her warmly and kiss her hair.

“You’re welcome, Sophie,” I say, softly. “Now, get some sleep. We’ve got a lot to do, and I really can’t do it without my helper.” She pushes away from me and looks up at me with a smile.

“Yes, you can,” she says, sweetly, “but you won’t have to.” She smiles, then turns and walks through the family room towards her apartment.

“No… I can’t,” I whisper to her retreating form.

The children have been put to bed and I find myself tired, but still quite awake. I wander down to the movie room and sit in one of the luxurious chairs. They’re large and comfortable and they recline almost to a horizontal position. I scroll through the available movies with the remote and settle on The Lake House with Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.

Yeah, this is perfect—two lovers separated by time that will never be together, it seems.

I get all the way to the part when Keanu’s character, Alex shows up at Kate’s birthday party—played by Sandra, of course—which she clearly didn’t want to have. As many times as I have watched this movie, I’ve always wondered how appropriate it is to invite people that neither of you knew to a birthday party for your girlfriend. She was doing her internship and she looked exhausted, but then she comes home to a house full of people, some of them strangers.

That kind of happened to me when Daddy adopted me, but I didn’t mind the party and the only stranger present was Brian’s doppelganger girlfriend, Ana, Jr. I wonder what ever happened to her and if she and Brian are still together.

I lean back in the chair and get comfortable watching one of my favorite scenes in the movie, when Alex and Kate are dancing outside while her birthday party is going on inside—two unlikely lovers falling in love at a very inopportune time. I remember that they kiss at the end of this scene.

How can someone who has committed themselves to someone even wrap their heads around the concept of kissing someone else? It’s something that I never could understand. Even when Liam was leaning in to kiss me, I knew it was wrong and all I could think was, “No, this ain’t Christian.”

I watch as they embrace each other passionately as Paul McCartney sings that song, This Is the Way It Should Be. I don’t remember the last time I heard that song, but I remember clearly the last time I thought of it. It was when Christian and I made love on the hood of his RS7 after our very first visit to a BDSM club. I remember thinking that nothing could go wrong as long as we were together—nothing…

The song ends as Alex and Kate get lost in their kiss.

*-*

I awake right where I fell asleep. There are no windows in the movie room, so I can’t tell if it’s morning. When I reach for the remote, I discover that I’m wrapped in a velour throw and I’m lying on a pillow.

Shit, these chairs are almost as comfortable as my bed!

I push the status button on the remote, waking the movie screen, and the time pops up in life-sized numbers… 8:53am. Whatever I’m going to do, it’s time to get up from here. I stand and stretch before grabbing my wayward hair and tying it in a knot behind me. The hair of the “short part” falls out and brushes my shoulder. Of course, I’m not bald over there anymore, but it’s still nowhere near as long as the rest of my hair. I’m used to that side doing its own thing, though.

I fold the throw and place it and the pillow neatly in the seat, then stumble my way to the kitchen. No one is in the kitchen when I arrive which is odd, but there’s still coffee in the coffee pot. I pour myself a large mug of black coffee and make my way back downstairs. I look at my parlor as I pass and it’s a tsunami of Christmas rubble. I groan when I see it and proceed to my office.

I check my calendar to see if anything important is happening today. If it is, it’s not in my calendar. Chuck informed me yesterday that Maddie and Nelson have opted to stay here over the Christmas holiday. That makes me happy. I know they would have slightly more privacy at the Bainbridge house, but Chuck does need to be on call, and having them that far away means that he has to schedule visits to see them. That kind of defeats the purpose of them coming to Seattle, doesn’t it? I type out a text to Gail that they’ll be staying with us until just after the new year and to prepare one of the guest rooms for their stay.

I open my email to touch bases with the world again. Carl has emailed me again about the auction for Tina’s jewelry. It’s going to be the day after Christmas. I can’t help but think how bad that marketing strategy is—well, maybe not. People are always looking for good deals at after Christmas sales, but that’s not the type of money that you would hope to pull in from a charity auction, is it?

Carl’s probably not even concerned about that. After having to deal with Tina’s brood of misfit children, he’s probably only concerned about getting everything taken care of and closing up shop. No doubt, at this time of year, that’s the soonest that he could get into the auction house and he simply didn’t want to wait.

To be honest, I can’t even imagine going to a jewelry auction right now. There’s just too much going on in the immediate to make plans for it even in the future. I send him an email and politely decline.

I spent part of yesterday sending out emails and texts to everyone that Christmas would be at the Crossing this year and asking that they RSVP that they’re aware that Christmas festivities will start somewhere around 2pm. And as I’m counting, I was right to prepare for 40 people. As I’m going through my emails, my phone rings with a text. It’s Grace.

**Are you coming in today? **

Uh, oh… is something wrong?

Ana: I hadn’t planned to. I’m getting the house and meal situated for Christmas. Do you need me? Is everything okay? **

Grace: Dammit, I forgot I dumped that on you at the last minute! I’m sorry. No, I was just waiting to see if there were any special plans for Christmas besides the holiday meal. **

Ana: Do you think it’s too late to arrange for Santa Claus to come by? I think it would be nice and I know we have the money in the budget. **

Grace: That’s a great idea! Why didn’t I think of that? I’ll arrange it. The kids will love it and so will the parents. I’ll put Helen and Ebony in charge of it on Christmas. Helen asked to work and Ebony loves kids. **

Ana: That sounds great, and don’t worry about me and Christmas. The task turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I’m stretching my long-dormant domestic legs. It’s great! You’re really going to love it. **

Grace: I’m so glad to hear that. When my mind is clear, I feel like I’m taking advantage of your talents and kindness. I’m sorry if I’ve made you feel that way. **

You have, but that statement is the best Christmas present you’ve ever given me.

Ana: Thank you, Grace. That means a lot to me. ❤ **

Grace: You mean a lot to me, Ana dear. Please don’t forget that even though I may behave like a horse’s ass sometimes. **

I literally laugh out loud.

Her final text is to tell me that she’s seeing her doctor this afternoon like I suggested and that she’s emailing me the confirmed final choices for tutors and teachers for my approval. That bump we faced was a pretty big one, but she is my mother-in-law after all, and hopefully, we’ve gotten past it and the future will look a little smoother.

I go through my emails and my heart leaps a bit when I see one from Christian. It falls like a block of lead when I realize that it’s work-related. I click on the email, knowing that he really wouldn’t send it to me unless it was important, knowing how I feel about GEH right now.

And it is.

It’s actually good news for me. The mandatory drug tests are nearly complete and out of all the people tested, so far only eight have returned with positive drug tests for various controlled substances. In a zero-tolerance company, this is grounds for immediate dismissal. The violators have indicated that they’ll sue, and even I with my limited knowledge of law and business know that they don’t stand even the slightest chance. The drugs are varied, even in a small group—marijuana, cocaine, meth, heroine—and the name at the top of the list? Deanna Carson!

Merry fucking Christmas, bitch!

I close the email and smile. This won’t be the last she hears from me, even though she doesn’t know that she’s hearing from me now, but it’s a really good start.

I look at my phone and decide that I need to bust a bit of a mission myself. I do a bit of Googling, dial some numbers, get stuck in a phone tree and after a bit of finagling, I get Gary’s number at his desk at City of Lights. He’s so busy at that place and I know that he won’t answer, but I have to try.

“Hello, you’ve reached the voice mail of Garrett Pope. I’m not available to take your call right now but leave me a message and I’ll call you back. Bye.”

“No, you won’t,” I say sadly before the phone beeps. “Hi, Gary. I know you told me to leave you alone… and that you couldn’t talk right now. I… I’ve just never known a time when we couldn’t talk, not since the first day we met.”

I clear my throat and realize that I’m getting choked up.

“Christmas is just a few days away… and no one should be alone on Christmas…”

I swallow my tears and keep talking.

“If you’re worried about running into her, she won’t be here,” I add with a sniff. “Just… call me… please…”

I end the call before bursting into tears. I’m emotional anyway trying to deal with Christian’s ire and the fucking holidays and the fact that I agreed to have Christmas at my house with only three days’ notice. I quickly dry my tears and turn my focus to something more constructive than the fact that two of the men in my life are rejecting me right now.

I need to take a shower and get my day started since there’s still so much to do. I take the elevator straight upstairs and make a B-line to my room. I really don’t want to explain tears to anyone this early in the morning. I strip out of my clothes and turn the shower on as hot as I can stand it. Then I get in, let the water run over my head, and cry.

It’s a cleansing cry, just to get out all the pent-up frustration—over nothing and everything, so that I’m not talking to Sophie about some random thing and it suddenly turns into a nostalgic tear-fest over some specific color of red.

Motown music will be piping through the communication system today.

I don a pair of yoga pants and an oversize cable-knit sweater—which suddenly gives me a great idea for the cookie bake. It’s actually going to spread over two days now since I have more ideas for cookies, and I’ll most likely be in the kitchen for three days. The grocery delivery will be coming today, and things have to start being prepared, like cooking three turkeys. There’s a science to cooking three turkeys for Christmas so that all the meat is hot for Christmas day. Two will be cooked and carved on Christmas Eve and the third will be cooked on Christmas day.

Then there are the many side dishes that will be prepared, the cookie tins I’m going to make, the desserts, the beverages, etc…

I walk across the hall to my babies room and open the door. There’s Keri fixing Minnie’s outfit, and Gail is on the floor playing with Mikey. When he sees me at the door, he pushes himself to his feet and just toddles right across the room to me.

Three women are staring gape-mouthed at my son. I look up at Gail and point to my son who is now holding onto my legs and looking up at me with a four-toothed drooling grin.

“Wha… ho… di… e… when di…?” I can’t even get a full sentence out. What I’m trying to ask is had he shown any progress towards walking besides the one or two steps we had seen him take. Gail just shakes her head and looks at me, wide-eyed.

“He just got up and started walking!” she says in amazement and turns to Keri. “Did you see that? He just got up and started walking!”

“Ah see! Ah see!” Keri says. “Whut a wanhduhful Chtissmas ptesant!”

“It is indeed!” I say, bending down to retrieve my son. “Mikey’s walking!” I beam. “Such a good boy. Are you going to teach your sister now?”

“Bah bah bah bah!” he says, patting both my cheeks with his hands. I’m all warm and happy inside to see my baby boy get up and walk on his own. I only wish I could have caught the moment on video, but I’m not too soon to forget it.

With the help of the staff and lots of additional labor that Gail had the foresight to hire, we’ve gotten all the decorating done before 3pm—all the trees, including the giant bulb tree in the backyard and the ice globe lanterns that can be seen from the lake. The big boat house and the boat house at the end of the dock are covered in lights along with some of the surrounding trees. The back balconies have been decorated with lights and giant illuminated candy canes. Giant bulbs grace the front lawn before you get to the portico and a large wreath greets you at the front door.

Sophie and I have started my extra Christmas cookie bake, which are additional batches of gingerbread and sugar cookies to be decorated in various ways. I’ve also got a million empty cookie tins to fill and give away. Even with four professional ovens, there’s going to be way too much going on to be hogging any stoves with cookies besides the traditional Christmas Eve cookie bake.

We’re just finishing the tree and stairs in the grand entry when Chuck arrives with Maddie and Nelson. I’m so glad they decided to stay with us this year. I give them warm hugs and introduce them to my gorgeous babies.

“Oh, that’s right!” Maddie says. “You were pregnant when we last saw you! My gosh, babies grow so fast!”

Knowing that he’s the topic of conversation, Mikey stands again and walks over to Maddie. Chuck’s eyes widen.

“When did that happen?” he asks, pointing at Mikey. I shrug.

“He just got up this morning and started walking,” I inform him. “He’s been running around ever since.”

“Well, what do ya know about that?” Chuck says in amazement. He doesn’t have any of his own children, so he’s experiencing everything first-hand through mine.

“Maddie, Nelson, I know you must be tired from your trip. Are you hungry? Would you like to eat something, or would you rather settle in first?”

Phase one of the Pre-Christmas Eve Cookie Cookoff continue with Maddie helping to shape the sweater cookies that came to mind this morning as well as the cutouts for gingerbread men, Christmas trees, and various other merry shapes to be decorated with icing and candy, including Mickey and Minnie Mice to celebrate my babies’ first Christmas.

Maddie and Nelson tell us their side of the legal battle with Joe over dinner, for which Christian still hasn’t joined us. I haven’t seen him since Sunday afternoon. Were it not for the little hints of his presence, I wouldn’t even know he still lived here. However, with the smell of fresh Christmas cookies filling the air, the sound of my favorite music piping through the sound system, and the fact that my baby boy is up and running around like he’s in a marathon, I find it difficult to be down in the mouth about anything right now.

I take a hot bubble bath to soothe my muscles as I know I have a very busy day ahead of me tomorrow—the rest of the Christmas cookies; the cooking for Christmas combined with entertaining Chuck’s parents when they get back from the festivities he has planned for them; making sure that Mikey who is now walking doesn’t get into any mischief… Jesus, I’m going to have to childproof the house now!

I nearly fall asleep in the bathtub, but I don’t. I climb out and slip into a warm nightshirt, crawl into bed, and say hello to the sandman.

Morning comes so much faster than I expect, but I’m greeted with something that I’ve come not to expect. Christian’s gone, but his side of the bed has been slept in. Maybe that’s why I slept so hard.

If he’s up this early, he’s obviously gone to work. I’m not surprised that he’s working on Christmas Eve. We both worked last year. I just took the day off to host Christmas.

Since I took a bath right before bed, I forego the shower and don yet another pair of yoga pants and a sweater—a Christmas sweater, to be exact. It’s a cute red and white off-the-shoulder oversized sweater with Santa heads lining the top and a winter wonderland lining the bottom. I peek in to check my babies and they’re both asleep, so I head downstairs.

To my delight, Sophie, Gail, and Maddie are all donning aprons and getting the kitchen ready for the mayhem that will be Christmas Eve. Ms. Solomon has agreed to allow us to invade “her” kitchen for the traditional Christmas Eve Cookie Bake as well as whatever dishes I choose to “help” with today with the condition that whatever remains to be done on Christmas that I allow her and the staff to complete it.

“The lady of the house shouldn’t be cooking on Christmas,” she scolds. “That’s why you hired me!” I smile and agree to her conditions. The only things that will be cooked today are two of the three turkeys and things that won’t degrade when you reheat them.

Our Christmas is going to be far from traditional. We’re going to have eight vegetable dishes, four pasta dishes, traditional dressing and my cheesy potatoes, turkey and ham, three different salads and an assortment of crudité, antipasto, hors d’oeuvres  breads, pastries and desserts as well as a variety of beverages.

One of our pasta dishes will be a divine macaroni and cheese that Maddie makes. Everyone who has had it swears to it, including Keri.

Also, to my delight, Nelson and Chuck bond over long conversations out at the smoker. So, one of our turkeys and one of our hams will be slow smoked over Applewood.

Not to be excluded, Sophie has asked permission to prepare an ambrosia salad, while Keri has requested to be able to contribute Jamaican rice and peas. It will be quite the eclectic Christmas indeed.

By mid-afternoon, the house is alive with delicious aromas, laughter and Christmas carols when Windsor announces that Val and Elliot have arrived. I come into the grand entrance to greet my sister and brother just as they’re entering the portico.

“Hey!” I say cheerfully, opening my arms to Valerie. “I’m glad you’re here! The cookie bake is still going on.”

“Oh, dear God, I forgot all about the cookie bake!” she says as she removes her coat. “I heard it was quite the family affair last year. I missed it because of Meg.”

“Well, there’ll be none of that this year,” I say, handing her coat to Windsor while Elliot does the same with his coat. “I’ve probably tripled all my recipes, so there’s plenty more to cook.”

“Tripled?” she asks. “Why?”

“I’m filling cookie tins,” I say. “I’m going to give more away. Plus, you know Christmas was kind of sprung on me this year, so I’m cooking enough food to feed all of Seattle!” I add with a laugh.

“I’m kidding,” I say as my sister and brother laugh with me, “but I anticipate that there will be way too many leftovers for my family, even with guests staying over. So, we’ll be packing up some food for the homeless. I thought cookies would be nice, too, you know?”

“Jesus, Montana, this place looks like Santa’s workshop!” Elliot says, looking around at the explosion of decorations. I look around, too, and roll my eyes.

“Yeah,” I sigh. “I think I may have gotten a little carried away…”

“A little?” Val says. “There are ginormous Christmas bulbs on your lawn and a life-sized Mary and Joseph cradling a six-pound-seven-ounce baby Jesus before we even get in the gate!”

“Oh, wonderful!” I exclaim. “The nativity scene arrived! They didn’t even tell me. How does it look?”

“Like Bethlehem!” Val informs me. I’m giddy with excitement.

“Oh, I have to go see it!” I say, turning to retrieve my coat.

“No need,” Val says. “I took pictures.” She pulls out her phone and opens her gallery. I scroll through picture after picture of various angles of the nativity in the snow outside of my gates complete with an illuminated star above it.

The three wise men, various barn and field animals, angels, the star of Bethlehem, and of course, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. She even has pictures of the house with the lights and the giant bulbs as you approach.

“Oh, Gosh, it’s beautiful,” I say wistfully.

“Steele, it’s insane. What brought this on?” I sigh and twist my lips at her.

 “Oh, come on,” I say, “I know it’s over-the-top, but isn’t it great? I feel like Buddy in that movie Elf. It makes you feel like a kid again, and my babies love it! Come on in. Wait until you see how happy everybody is.”

“Where’s Christian?” Elliot asks as they fall in step behind me.

“At work,” I reply. He and Val look at each other.

“It’s Christmas Eve,” Val says.

“Yep,” I say dismissively. He’ll probably be working tomorrow, too. “Come on, I don’t think you’ve met Chuck’s parents.” I lead the way into the family room where Maddie and Nelson have settled in. Once Elliot and Val catch up to me, I introduce them to Maddie.

“Oh, geez, you guys are cooking and baking cookies. What’s a guy to do?” I hand Val an apron.

“Well, you can help out, or you can go get your coat and go to the barbeque kitchen. Chuck and Nelson are back there smoking meat.”

“I’ll take the barbeque kitchen, thank you,” he says, going to retrieve his coat.

“Okay, Steele, seriously, what are these?” I turn around and see Val looking at the assortment of new cookies on the counters.

“The sugar-cookie-and-icing Christmas tree stacks are Sophie’s creation.” I gesture to Sophie and she curtsies. Val smiles and nods at her.

“Those big, bulky looking sweaters with the white icing—I kind of shaped those by hand. I got the idea from a cable-knit sweater that I was wearing yesterday.”

“You shaped those by hand, Steele?” she asks, and I nod. “That’s pretty good.”

“Thanks,” I reply. “The shapes got a little better when Ms. Solomon informs me that we have cookie cutters, and that’s where these Christmas sweaters came from.” I gesture to the sweaters with different color icing and designs on them.

“Then, of course, she introduced me to the rest of the cookie cutters, and that’s where all the shaped gingerbread cookies came from.”

“What about those?” she asks, pointing to larger gingerbread men and women holding candy canes. “They’re darker. They’re not burnt, are they?”

“No,” I say with a giggle. “That creation is credited to Maddie. That’s a chocolate gingerbread cookie. It’s moist and very tasty, and you get a second treat with it.”

“Oh! Okay, but how are they holding onto the candy canes? Wouldn’t they have melted in the oven?” Val presses.

“Probably,” I tell her, “but Maddie wrapped the dough around chopsticks, then stuck the hands together and baked them that way. Once they were done, we had to carefully remove the chopstick and insert the candy canes. There were more than a few casualties.”

“We ate the evidence,” Maddie interjects, and we laugh. Our laughter is interrupted by Jason walking into the room.

“Hello, ladies,” he says announcing his presence, and various women reply as he walks over to Gail. “Hello, love,” he says quietly while kissing her on the cheek. She blushes a bit and I feel a twinge of envy… just a twinge.

“Maddie, it’s good to see you,” he says to Maddie. “Was your flight okay?”

“As well as can be expected for flying,” she says warmly, giving him a hug.

“You’re here, so that must mean that Christian is present,” Val says. “Where is he, parking the car?” she jests.

“You’ve got jokes,” Jason says with a chuckle, then turns to me.

“He’s in the gym,” he says. “GEH was a bit of a shi… boo-boo storm today, especially with Ros gone.” I furrow my brow.

“I’m an old lady, Jason, but you certainly don’t have to censor yourself for me,” Maddie says. “I’ve heard worse, I assure you.” He smiles at her.

“No offense, lovely lady, but it’s for the babies,” Jason says. “Her Highness insists that we use no profanity around the prince and princess.”

“Her Highness?” Maddie repeats and looks at me. I scoff and Val laughs.

“Did you have to say that?” I lament.

“Never knew what you were getting yourself into when you started that, did you?” he chuckles.

“You started that?” Maddie says with a laugh.

“It was a joooooooooke!” I whine. “When he first met me, he kept calling me ma’am and it was driving me nuts. I told him to call me ‘Ana’ and he just wouldn’t. I made several suggestions—Doctor Lady, Pookie… I would have preferred he called me Pookie than this!”

I wouldn’t,” Gail says matter-of-factly while removing a tray of freshly baked sugar cookies from the oven.

“I wouldn’t mind it so much, but he calls me Her Highness all the time. He only calls me Ana when it slips or when he’s really serious about something. Even the security staff at GEH knows me as Her Highness!” I complain.

“Well, you get what you ask for,” he retorts.

“I asked for Ana!” I counter.

“Too late. It’s Your Highness now,” he says with a smile as he steals a warm sugar cookie. Gail slaps his hand, but she’s too slow.

“Ros is gone?” I ask, bringing the conversation back around. “Gone where?”

“Not gone gone,” Jason clarifies, swallowing the cookie. “She’s on vacation.” My frown deepens.

“Wait a minute… Ros is on vacation while all this shi—… crap is going on?” I ask incredulously.

“I don’t know all the details. You’ll have to ask him, but yeah, she’s gone until after the new year.” Hmmm, so on top of all the GEH bullshit, he’s now dealing with this crap one man… woman short, and every cell in my being is telling me that she did this shit on purpose.

“I know that look, and I’m shamelessly making my getaway,” Jason says. “Where are the men hiding?”

“In the outdoor barbeque kitchen,” Gail says, opening the refrigerator and retrieving a bottle of beer. “Nelson and Chuck are smoking meat and Elliot is out there with them.”

“Hey! Christmas festivities without me?” Harmony says making an entrance from the front of the house.

“Another woman. I’m out,” Jason says, escaping towards the back of the house and the barbeque kitchen.

“Hey, Harmony,” Gail says. “Grab an apron and a potholder. We could certainly use an extra set of hands…” I’m rolling out crust for one of the apple pies and Val walks over to me.

“You didn’t know about that?” she asks. “Ros is like his second in command, right?” I nod, trying to concentrate on rolling the crust out evenly.

“I don’t know much about what’s going on at GEH lately,” I say, perfectly rolling the dough to place into the pie pan.

“You’re half-owner of the company. How do you not know?” she asks, moving the pie pan closer to me. I carefully place the crust into the pan and begin to form it into the crevices.

“That’s not how they treat me,” I say, lowering my voice and brushing the crust with butter. “They tolerate me when I’m there. If I speak, someone could lose their job, and that’s all they really care about. The last time I was there, Christian said that he was doing an audit of the departments to find out why things aren’t being done. Ros asked him right in front of me if legal was going to be audited, too.” Val’s brow furrows.

“Al’s department?” she asks. “Is he fucking up, too?” I glare at her and realize that her voice is too low for the twins to hear her in the next room.

“No,” I reply matter-of-factly. “She illuminated the nepotism and made a point that the other departments would clearly see the favoritism if legal wasn’t audited, too. The bitch didn’t even have the guts to look me in the eye when she was saying that shit!” I hiss quietly as I add the homemade apple mixture into the pie crust.

“Hm,” Val says, “and now she conveniently takes a vacation right in the middle of a shitstorm.”

Right in the middle!” I snap quietly. “He comes in every day and goes straight to the workout room, and she figures that now is a good time to go see Bermuda!” I nearly growl as quietly as I can so as not to draw attention to myself. I’m fighting not to get angry, but I really want to throw something right now. Val looks knowingly at me.

“What?” I ask, besides the fucking obvious.

“Is that why this place looks like the North Pole?” she asks, pointing around herself at the overload of decorations. Looking at them, I’m quickly feeling a bit Christmasy again.

“I just want to be happy, Val,” I tell her. “It’s Christmas. It’s time for eggnog… and cookies… and outrageous decorations… and family… and I just want to be happy.” I shrug and she smiles softly.

“Then let’s be happy,” she says. “You want to do the lattice on that pie, or should I?”

My sister… my friend…

*-*

I still haven’t seen Christian once I’ve put my children down to sleep with visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.

I’m almost certain that in addition to what may be going on at GEH, he’s avoiding me. It might be a good idea that he’s avoiding me, because I don’t know what to say to him and he clearly doesn’t know what to say to me.

But tomorrow’s Christmas, for Christ’s sake.

We normally exchange a gift on Christmas Eve, but I haven’t seen him in four days. He probably didn’t even buy a gift for me! We didn’t even adopt a family this year because we had the Family Reunion instead of the Family Affair, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise since I’m fighting to make sure that this particular Christmas season doesn’t turn out to be a dud.

I spend another evening in my marble tub to make sure that I don’t awake stiff as a board. Tomorrow’s Christmas. I’ll have a house full of people and no matter how I feel, I’ve got to entertain. Ms. Solomon has banned me from the kitchen and although I won’t be cooking, I hate to tell her that there are going to be some moments when I’m going to be in there.

Harmony, Val and Elliot, and Maddie and Nelson are all tucked away in the guest rooms as well

I’ve laid out Minnie and Mikey’s Christmas attire, complete with two additional Christmas wardrobe changes should they ruin their first outfits. I’ve even carefully chosen my own clothing and this house is going to be drowning in Yuletide joy if I have to shit it out of my own ass!

I climb into bed in a flannel nightshirt, all warm and snuggly, and it doesn’t take long for me to fall off to sleep.

I awake to an empty bed… again. He was here; I can tell. There’s a fire going in the fireplace and his side of the bed has been slept in, but had it not been for those signs, I never would have known he was here.

There’s no warmth around me like he held me at all. I don’t feel any love or hate or anything from him. Four days and not a fucking word. It’s almost like he doesn’t exist… like I don’t exist.

He leaves before I wake.

He works until the very late hours of the evening or if he does come home, he makes sure he doesn’t encounter me until I’m asleep.

The only thing that lets me know that the man isn’t dead is that there’s no APB out on him.

The only communication that he’s had with me over the last several days is an email that he sent to the entire executive staff about the drug tests.

Maddie and Nelson arrived two days ago, and I don’t even know if he has spoken to them.

Any other time he hasn’t seen me, he would call me or text me or something. Although I know this goes both ways, I haven’t heard a thing out of him—not a peep.

He clearly wants to be left alone. He’s either still licking his wounds, his work has him all tied up and I’m very much the second thought, or he’s trying to teach me a lesson. Is he still in an internal uproar about what I said this weekend? Is this his way of lashing out at me… or punishing me?

Well, at least he didn’t fly to fucking Madrid!

I throw the covers off and get out of bed.


A/N: NEW CHRISTMAS PINTEREST PAGE 
https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/raising-grey-a-grey-christmas/

Pictures of places, cars, fashion, etc., can be found at
https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/raising-grey/

The new question and answer thread is always open for questions about the story. be sure to read it and please adhere to the rules when asking questions. You can find it on the left, second from last in the menu our you can click HERE.

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 ~~love and handcuffs

 

 

 

 

 

 

Raising Grey: Chapter 91—Thin Line

Three more chapters after this one…

This is a work of creativity. As such, you may see words, concepts, scenes, actions, behaviors, pictures, implements, and people that may or may not be socially acceptable and/or offensive. If you are sensitive to adverse and alternative subject matter of any kind, please do not proceed, because I guarantee you’ll find it here. You have been warned. Read at your own risk.

I do not own Fifty Shades Trilogy, or the characters. They belong to E. L. James. I am only exercising my right to exploit, abuse, and mangle the characters to MY discretion in MY story in MY interpretation as a fan. If something that I say displeases you, please, just leave. If you don’t like this story or me, please don’t spoil this experience for everyone. Just go away. For the rest of you, the saga continues…

Chapter 91—Thin Line

ANASTASIA

After a quick shower and a fresh change of clothes, I head across the hall to the nursery. The children haven’t stirred yet, so I don’t disturb them. Instead, I go down to the kitchen to locate Gail.

“Has Christian eaten already?” I ask, watching her as she loads dishes into the dishwasher.

“Yes,” she says. “He and Jason have already left.” My brow furrows. It’s Sunday.

“Left?” I ask. “Where did they go?”

“To the airport,” she says, matter-of-factly.

What?

All kinds of horrible scenarios are going through my head, but I’m determined not to jump to conclusions or allow the Boogieman to take hold of me… without a thorough explanation, that is.

“Why… did they go to the airport?” I say, my voice calmer than my countenance at the moment. Gail turns a questioning gaze to me.

“I thought you knew,” she says, pausing her task. I shake my head as nonchalantly as I can. “He’s going to get some flight time in his helicopter. He said if he didn’t clock some time soon, he might lose his license.”

I don’t let her see me sigh, although my chest feels like it might cave in. I just nod and begin to pour some coffee.

“I smell bacon,” I say, effectively covering my jitters. “Is there any left?”

*-*

“I’m glad you called,” Grace says on the other line. “Would I be terribly selfish if I said that I don’t feel like hosting Christmas this year?”

“Grace,” I scold, “when were you going to tell us?”

“Everybody’s accustomed to coming to my house,” she whines. “I was trying to find the energy and will to go through with it, really I was, but I’m so tired. I just don’t want to do it this year… I really… I just don’t want to.” She sounds like a toddler trying to convince me not to make her go to bed.

“It’s not too late,” I tell her. “We can do Christmas at my house. You are coming, aren’t you?”

“Of course, I am!” she retorts. “It’s just… so much work…” Tell me about it. “I just don’t feel up to hosting it, Ana.”

“Grace, have you spoken to your doctor?” I ask. “Make sure that your medicines are all the right dosages? You should tell him how you feel. You might need some adjustments.” She sighs.

“You might be right,” she cedes. “I haven’t been feeling that great at all lately. It couldn’t hurt to have them check me out, huh?”

“I highly recommend it, doctor,” I press.

“I hear you, I hear you, I’ll call her in the morning,” she corrects me. “Can I bring something? A dessert or something? I did kind of dump this on you…”

“No, just bring yourself,” I say. “It’s an excuse to bake more cookies,” I add. Grace laughs on the other end and I’m happy that we’ve moved beyond truce. I end the call with Grace, suggesting that she take tomorrow off from Helping Hands and let me know when her appointment is going to be, then I call Chuck.

“Hey. We goin’ somewhere?” he asks.

“No, I was just trying to find out if your parents decided if they wanted to stay here or at your house for the holidays,” I say.

“I think Mom’s concerned about being an imposition,” he says. “They might want to stay at the Bainbridge house.”

“Well, that kinda sucks,” I say. “I really would like to see them, and them being all the way in Bainbridge, that’s an hour drive one way including the ferries anytime you want to see them. See if you can convince them to stay at the Crossing. We’ll be having Christmas here.”

“We are?” he asks.

“Yeah, we are,” I say. “Grace isn’t feeling up to hosting Christmas this year and in Val’s delicate condition, I wouldn’t dare spring it on her. And Mia… well, newlyweds and such. Anyway, yes, we’re having Christmas here, with all seven Christmas trees and the ‘come-one-come-all’ spirit that we always have.”

“Any idea how many people?” he asks.

“The door will be open,” I say. “I would hope that I could get everyone to RSVP by Christmas Eve, but the headcount will at least be the usual suspects.” Just as I finish my sentence, I raise my head to see my husband standing in the doorway just gazing at me.

“Well, I guess I’ll see if they want to come and stay, then since there’ll be festivities here anyway,” he says.

“Yeah,” I reply. “I gotta go. Gotta put out the APB’s and get the menu going.”

“Alright. I’ll let you know about Mom and Dad as soon as I do.” He ends the call and I put the phone on my desk still looking at my husband.

“Christmas is going to be here?” he asks casually.

“Yes,” I reply. “Grace isn’t feeling up to hosting this year. She apologized and assured me that she would be here.”

“It’s Thursday,” he says, walking into the office. “Do you think you’ll be able to pull it off by then?”

“You did a birthday party in a matter of a few hours,” I remind him. “I can do Christmas in a few days.” He nods and takes one of the seats in front of my desk.

“You have to know that I would never do that to you,” he says without looking at me. I swallow hard.

“I know,” I reply softly.

“Do you?” he accuses raising his head to me. “I don’t want you to say it because I was angry or because you think it’s what I want to hear. You have to know that I would never do that to you. Do you?” His statement is deliberate, and he won’t take a lie or a half-truth from me.

I didn’t before, truthfully, I didn’t. I wasn’t sure, but I am now.

“I know,” I repeat, firmly. I really do. He turns his gaze from me.

“I’m not angry anymore,” he says without looking at me, “but I’m not happy, either. Part of me wants to shake you and demand that you tell me how you dare think that way in the first place. Even when I ran off to Madrid thinking that you were protecting that asshole over me, the thought of another woman never entered my mind once. Not once! Part of me wants answers. The other part of me doesn’t even want to know. I don’t care how unhealthy it is, how you doctors may think I’m hiding, I don’t give a fuck. I don’t want to know what would make my wife—the woman that I love with every cell of my being—think that I would turn to one of those sub-bots that I used to flog and fuck because she wouldn’t allow me to use her beyond her limits.”

He stands from the chair and begins to pace around my office, his hands on his hips and his expression intense.

“This was my idea,” he says, gesturing wildly into the air. “It was my idea to get some formal guidance to see how we would proceed with our relationship in the lifestyle. Why would I bother doing that if I wanted someone else? And yes, I realize that the dreaded walk down Memory Lane happened after I made the suggestion, but I still went through with the meeting. I was open and honest about the memories and how they made me feel and look what it got me. I mean, really, why even bother bringing it up if my intention was to stray outside our relationship? That wouldn’t only make me an asshole. That would make me a stupid asshole…”

He’s ranting on and on and on, things that he didn’t say in front of Artemis and Savvina. These things were… are meant for my ears only. I think the biggest kick in the stomach for him is that he finds it incredibly unbelievable that my thoughts would even veer in the direction of him being unfaithful. All things considered, it was less about him being unfaithful and more about whether or not I would be able to be what he needed, even though the relationship between the two would eventually be cause and effect.

Was I too concerned about not being able to meet his needs? Was I taking a personal flaw—or what I perceived as a personal flaw—and imprinting it on my husband, i.e. I can’t be what he wants so he’s automatically going to find someone who can?

“I want you. To stop. Shrinking,” he says coolly and firmly. That’s when I realize that I’ve pulled my knees up into the chair and that my body is in such a tiny ball that another body could fit in here with me. I stretch my legs and put them on the floor, clasping my hands in my lap. That’s the best I can do.

“I can’t rescue you right now,” he says honestly. “I’m fighting my own demons at the moment.”

I guess we both are. I can’t blame him.

He gazes at me for a few moments, then he leaves my office.

I won’t cry. I haven’t been wronged.
I won’t blame the Boogeyman. That’s not what this is.
This is my own insecurities biting me in the ass and flowing out of my big mouth, and I just have to deal with the aftermath.

He needs time. I’ll give him time. Once his feelings of confusion simmer down, he’ll find his words. Then, he’ll most likely bite my head off.

And I deserve it.

*-*

“Purple, huh?” I say as I sit on Sophie’s bed, polishing her toenails the same lavender as her hair. She has already done my toes and I was waiting for them to dry as I do hers. I spent the afternoon journaling—mostly berating myself for being an insecure twit and imposing those feelings on my husband—then meditation, then yoga, and now I’m down here in Sophie’s apartment connecting with her on a simple level and trying to find out how she feels about the latest events in her life.

“I’m tired of being invisible,” she says, trying not to wiggle her toes. She painted mine blue and they’ve already dried. “It looks cute, and it’s kind of a statement.” I frown.

“What statement?” I ask.

“We’re… Care Bears.” My eyes widen and I try not to laugh.

“Care Bears?” I ask, fanning the polish on her toes.

“Yes,” she says. I’m Share Bear, because I always share my lunch with my friends when they forget theirs. My friend Cecily is Grumpy Bear… well, just because it fits, and the blue hair looks really good on her. And Lanie is Cheer Bear because, let’s face it, she’s sickeningly cheerful sometimes.”

I’m glad to hear that she has friends who were willing to stick through this crazy idea with her. I was worried about her fitting in after I had to make a couple of appearances at her school.

“And what color is Lanie’s hair?” I inquire.

“Pink,” she says. “It’s very pink.” I nod.

“How did their parents react to the new look?” I say.

“They didn’t flip out like Dad did!” she declares in the insolent teenagery way. “It’s not even permanent!”

“It just surprised him, Sophie. I think it’s really cute,” I say.

“Thanks,” she says. “I’m going to do it again when it wears off.” I don’t respond. I decide to change the subject.

“So, how do you feel about your mom?” I ask. I don’t know if anybody talked to her about it.

“You mean about her going to jail?” she asks. I nod. “I don’t know, Ana. I want to feel sad about it—she is my mom after all—but she tried to sell me to her drug dealer. What did she think was going to happen to me? I’m a kid, but I’m not stupid. I know he was going to try to do all kinds of creepy things to me or make me do creepy things. And whenever I talk to her, she acts like it didn’t happen. So, how am I supposed to feel about her going to jail?”

“I don’t know, Sophie,” I tell her. “My mom did sell me to someone… or at least she sold my silence, and I still haven’t forgiven her. So, this is one time I don’t have the answer for you.”

“At least somebody understands me,” she says. “I feel like a horrible person because I don’t know how I feel about her going to jail. She’s my mom, I really don’t want her to go to jail. But geez, she tried to sell me! Or trade me. That means that she really has a serious problem if she didn’t see anything wrong with that.”

“That’s true,” I say. “How do you feel about her getting help and maybe wanting you to come back and live with her?” Sophie shakes her head.

“I would beg the judge to let me stay with my dad,” she says finitely. “I’ve been doing some studying on my own and I know that the judge listens to kids of a certain age. I’m hoping that I’ll be old enough that by the time my mom is eligible for parole, the judge will listen to me.”

“The judge listened to you before, Sophie,” I tell her. “I’m sure he’ll listen to you again.” She twists her lips.

“I hope so,” she replies. Then she falls silent for a few moments.

“What is it, Sophie?” I ask.

“This is my first Christmas with Dad since… I don’t know how long. I’m just wondering how it’s going to go.”

“Well, it’ll be different for us this year,” I tell her. “We normally all meet at Grace’s, but this year, everybody’s meeting over here.” She raises her brow.

“Everybody?” she says, her voice a mixture of hope and dismay, if you can say that. I give her a sympathetic glance.

“You know the door is always open at Christmas for anyone who wants to stop by.” She sighs.

“That means that Marlow will probably be here, and he’ll bring one of his scatterbrains,” she says with distaste. I shake my head.

“You may want to lighten up a bit on his dates,” I tell her. “It only serves to piss him off when you give them a hard time.”

“They’re such easy targets,” she says. “You know why he’s with them. Do they have to be so obvious?” I raise a brow.

“Why is he with them?” I ask.

“Either they want to meet you or Uncle Christian, or he wants to make out,” she says matter-of-factly, and she’s right—most likely the latter.

“So maybe now might be the time not to pay so much attention to Marlow and his dates and start paying more attention to your own interests,” I say. I want her to focus on something other than the unattainable young man who visits us from time to time. It would be a long time before he would ever even be slightly interested in Sophie, and she’s certainly sabotaging any possibility of that even in the distant future with her behavior. He’s four whole years older than her—well, nearly four. She’d probably be somewhere around twenty-one before he would even consider looking in her direction, and there’s a whole lot of years between 13 and 21. Give it up, Sophie.

“Yeah, well,” she says flippantly. “I suppose there’s no way I can get out of Christmas,” she laments. I raise my brow and purse my lips.

“Not unless you want to tell your father that you don’t want to be around Marlow and why,” I inform her. She scoffs.

“Please,” she says in that surly teenage voice. “He had a cow over purple hair. This would probably give him a coronary!”

I don’t bother asking exactly what this is. We’ve all had girlhood crushes on some unattainable older boy. It’ll pass.

Once our toes have dried and we’ve talked about everything from her beloved High School Musical and Zach Efron to the fear of being a high school student herself next year, I hear the two-way come alive.

“Ana,” I call into the air, and I hear Minnie’s cooing voice.

“Well, that’s my cue,” I say, uncrossing my legs from the lotus position and putting them on the floor.

“How does the system know when to call you?” she asks, removing the tissue from between her toes. “Like, does it buzz every time the babies cry or when does it not buzz or what?”

“Barney set it up,” I tell her, then I realize that she doesn’t know who Barney is. “Christian’s IT guy. It’s some algorithm where it picks up a certain sound or tone of the babies, but only from the nursery.” We’re going to have to revisit, because it’s picking up some other things.

“Can I come with?” she asks, hopeful.

“Sure, you can, come on.”

Keri has already made it to the nursery when we get there, and I’ve already told Gail that I was on my way and that Sophie is with me. Sophie adores baby time. Like everyone else, she doesn’t know which baby to grab first. Luckily, Keri has made the decision and retrieved Minnie, so Mikey finds himself in Sophie’s arms. Already the ladies man, he coos and smiles at her, reaching for her face as she talks to him.

We spend quite a bit of time playing with and feeding the babies—more like monitoring them while they eat. Feeding time is a bit messy these days as the babies eat more with their hands, grabbing their sippy cups on their own and dropping more food on the tarps under their highchairs than they get into their mouths. It’s mostly a success, though that ends in bathtime and a nap for my two food critics.

We find that it’s early evening when we’ve finished with the twins and it’s time to go in search of sustenance. There’s nothing cooking when we get to the kitchen and when I locate Gail, I find out why.

“Christian and Jason are still at the office. He says they’re going to be late,” Gail tells me as she’s going over the house schedule for the coming week. Still at the office? It’s fucking Sunday! Why the fuck is he at the fucking office? And why the fuck didn’t he tell me he was going?

He’s avoiding me.

Try though I might, I can’t hide the mix of anger and disappointment that wells up inside of me. From now on, if I want to know where my husband is—if I want to know—I’ll ask Gail. At least her husband tells her what’s going on.

“Ms. Solomon decided not to start dinner until she talked to you,” Gail adds, reading my expression. “She thought you may want something quick and simple…” since my husband won’t be eating with me. I swallow hard and straighten my back.

“Sophie?” I say, turning to my Sunday companion. “Would you like to come and help me reacquaint myself with my kitchen?” Sophie’s face lights up.

“Yeah!” she says, like I just gave her a Christmas present. I nod and we walk into the gourmet kitchen.

“Sophie and I are going to play ‘chef’ this evening, Ms. Solomon,” I say, trying to hide my ire with my husband behind and painted-on smile. Ms. Solomon picks up immediately.

“Okay,” she says, “just call me if you need me,” and she leaves the kitchen to me and Sophie.

“So, I say, retrieving my chef’s apron from its hiding place where it has set way too long, “do we want something easy or complicated?” I hand Sophie another apron.

“Complicated,” she says, almost reading my mind and taking the apron. She ties it around her little body as I contemplate what we’re going to create. “Aunt Ana?” she says, getting my attention. I quickly turn my head to her. She variates between “Ana” and “Aunt Ana” at will.

“Hmm?” I reply, acknowledging her.

“Boys are stupid,” she says, looking up at me with big, understanding blue eyes that almost make me cry. I sigh heavily.

“Yes, they are,” I say as I retrieve a mixing bowl.

My spirits lift somewhat after Sophie and I giggle like schoolgirls creating a fabulous homemade chicken pot pie with all fresh ingredients including crust from scratch. It’s not really complicated on the cooking scale, but it’s detailed enough to keep us both occupied. As an addition to our comfort food, I make my garlic butter cheesy mashed potatoes and nearly cry when I taste them, longing like crazy for the simpler time when these were always in the fridge, and understanding a little more why Christian would wax nostalgic about memories of his most recent past.

The girls—Gail, Sophie, Keri, and I—all have dinner at the dining table, careful to keep the conversation light, nothing too serious to bring down girl time. When dinner is done, we load the dishwasher, put the food away, and go to our separate corners.

After I spend some time doing yoga, I take to Facebook and decide to create my first post…

“Your past is always your past. Even if you forget it, it remembers you. ― Sarah Dessen, What Happened to Goodbye”

I close Facebook so as not to be tempted to overshare. The sun has long since gone down and still no word from my husband. Deciding to turn in early, I stop in my babies’ nursery like I always do to check on them. I find Minnie standing in her crib holding on to the edge, sleepy-eyed, but awake. I close the door and take her from her crib. She’s unsettled for whatever reason, so I take her to the window seat and rub her little back.

I make the mistake of looking over at the bridge. I’m not looking for an Audi, I’m just looking at the bridge, wondering how many husbands are crossing it on the way home to their families; or how many families are returning from Sunday dinner at grandma’s house, going on to prepare for the busy week; or how many wives are driving across the bridge, leaving their families and never to return again.

God, that’s dismal.

I look down at Minnie in my arms and she has fallen asleep. I didn’t really need to remove her from the crib to put her to sleep. I just needed to hold her in my arms. For the moment, I’ve officially had enough of wearing my big girl panties. I’ll be a big girl tomorrow. Right now, I just want to cry.

I cradle my sleeping baby girl in my arms, hold her close to my body, and weep.


CHRISTIAN

I’ve buried myself so deep in work that I didn’t realize how late it was until Jason tells me that his wife wants to know if we’re coming home before midnight.

“I’m sorry,” I tell him. “Old habits are hard to break. I got some of the results back from the drug tests along with some of the reports from the departments and I just got lost.” He furrows his brow at me.

“Do you need to talk?” he asks.

“About what?” I counter. About the fact that I’m one man, er, woman down because Ros chose now to have a pissing contest? I could just fire her, but she hasn’t taken much if any vacation time all year. So, the work falls on me and Lorenz and, well… I’ve got other things on my mind, too—like the goddamn Pedophile and that cunt ghostwriter of hers, and…

“We have,” I protest. “We were talking about Christmas, which is going to be at the Crossing this year, by the way.” Jason frowns.

“Thanks for telling me!” he scolds.

“I was just told today,” I defend. “And it’s only going to be family and friends anyway.”

“People are going to be coming and going. You never know where the paps are hiding. We have to be informed about these things.”

“It slipped my mind,” I say, removing my glasses and rubbing my eye.

“Now I know something’s wrong,” he says. I frown and glare at him.

“Why are you saying that?” I ask.

“Because anything to do with security, your twins, and your wife never slips your mind,” he says. “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine, but just know that I know. And it’s more than just this work shit.” He waves around the room at my office. “Let me know when you’re ready to go,” he adds as he walks out of my office. I’m only glad no one else knows me as well as he does.

Except my wife. At least I thought she knew me… well enough to know that I wouldn’t go running into the arms of another woman because she won’t do the hard stuff. For fuck’s sake, Anastasia…

I push those thoughts out of my head and shoot off an email to HR to have the handful of people who tested positive out of my building no later than Tuesday. I’m happy to find that the vast majority follow the rules. Those who can’t will have bad news from Santa.

In accordance with my own rules, I CC the email to my wife. It’s like I told Ros before she flew the coop—if five people come back with a positive test, that’s five people that I can get rid of and get some drug-free talent in here, which is what I want. Nine came back with positive tests ranging from marijuana to meth, and I don’t even have all the results yet. I can get them out of here before they fuck anything up if they haven’t already. I’d say that’s a big win for the company so far.

I fire off a few more emails and let Jason know that it’s time to go. We have to be in court in the morning at 10, so I don’t want to keep him away from his wife and daughter for too long…

What about your wife…?

I head to my piano and a snifter of brandy like I did last night and let my melancholy tickle the ivories. My music is solemn—disappointed, like my mood. I haven’t had dinner and surprisingly, I’m not even hungry. After I don’t know how many hours, I realize that I’m really tired, though, more tired than I expected that I would be.

I want my damn bed. I haven’t slept in it and I’m tired and I want it now.

I close my piano, finish my brandy and head to my bedroom.

She’s not here, and the bed hasn’t been slept in. It’s 3:00 in the morning, and she’s not here. She’s not in the sitting room either, and the throw from the bed hasn’t been disturbed. There’s no evidence whatsoever that she’s even been in this room. I check her yoga room and she’s not there either. I would have seen her when I came from the elevator if she had been in here.

I begin to check every guest room except the room that Harmony is sleeping in. Maybe she’s feeling the same way she felt when I left for Madrid and doesn’t want to sleep in the room by herself.

No luck.

I’m trying to keep myself from panicking. I know that she wasn’t in the gym when I passed by. Her office? Her parlor? The aquarium? The spa?

Nothing.

Where the hell is she? I can’t find her anywhere! Now, I am starting to panic. Was I too hard on her? Has she left me? No, she wouldn’t leave without the children…

The twins! Of course!

I don’t wait for the elevator. I take the stairs two and three at a time to the first floor, bolting through the empty family room, kitchen, dining room and past the main entry, then up the main staircase to my twins room. I’m out of breath and I have to pause for a moment to calm my breathing before I open the door.

When I do, holding my breath, the room is dark… too dark. I scan the room and after adjusting my eyes to the darkness, I see Mikey fast asleep in his crib. I look over at Minnie’s crib and it’s empty.

My daughter is gone. Where is my daughter… and my wife?

A momentary rush of panic flows through me as I note the empty rocking chair and no light from the en suite. Just when I about to go full DEFCON 1, I see a shadow in the window seat.

Oh, shit.

I slowly walk across the room and I’m relieved and dismayed at the same time to find my wife fast asleep in the window seat with my daughter cradled contentedly in her arms. Her head is lying back on the wall and she’s scrunched up in the window seat with the baby in her arms. The moon is shining on her face, and her tears have left many treks behind.

I don’t know how to feel. I feel like I’m the one who has been wronged because I was wrongly accused, but she’s been crying.

I shake my head and reach for my baby to put her in her crib, but my wife stirs—not enough to wake, but enough to tighten her grasp on Minnie. My daughter whimpers a bit, but suckles her binky a couple of times and she’s out again… and so is my wife.

I’ll have to leave them here… or take them both.

I gather my wife in my arms, and she must’ve cried herself into sheer exhaustion, because all she does is breathe those crying shuddering breaths, clings to her baby, and falls immediately back to sleep in my arms. I look back at Mikey once more, who hasn’t stirred, and carry Butterfly and Minnie to our bedroom.

Once I lay her down, she feels the softness and loosens her grip on Minnie. My daughter rolls out of her mother’s arms and begins to stir and fuss a bit.

“Sshhh,” I soothe, rolling her onto her belly and patting her back as she sucks her binky. In no time, she’s fast asleep again. I look over at my wife, fully dressed and curled up so tightly in a ball that she looks like she’s eight years old.

She’s shrinking in her sleep. I can’t stop her from shrinking in her sleep.

I put the blanket over her and Minnie and go to my en suite. I stand in the shower for several minutes, allowing the heat to wash away the stress of the day. Once I begin to feel relaxed again, I pull on a pair of sweats and climb into bed. Neither of them has moved from the positions I left them in. I lie in bed on my back, staring at the ceiling and trying not to think about the thing that kept me away from home all day. I eventually fall asleep in that position.

I only sleep for a few hours and I’m awake again. Jason and I are headed for court this morning, I need to get out of bed. I stretch, and my hand brushes over my baby girl. I look over at her and her mother. It’s hard to believe they haven’t moved for hours—neither of them. Butterfly’s still curled in a ball and Minnie is still resting peacefully on her belly. I carefully slide out of bed so as not to wake them and go into my dressing room. I quietly dress for the day, my tie draped around my neck and my shoes, cufflinks, and suit jacket in my hand and sneak quietly out of the room.

I finish dressing just before I descend the stairs and as I’m coming through the hallway towards the kitchen, I can hear Jason talking to Gail.

“I don’t know what it is,” he says. “Something must’ve happened when he and Her Highness went out on Saturday. He’s been avoiding her ever since.”

“I knew it had to be something,” I hear Gail reply. “I think she asked me three times where he was. She never knew. I made the mistake of telling her that you guys had gone to the airport—she turned white, I mean alabaster white. She tried to downplay it, but she was terrified for a minute until I added that Christian was getting some time in Charlie Tango.”

“Well, hopefully it’ll blow over soon…”

“I don’t think so,” Gail interrupts her husband. “You’ve seen him like this before. He’s cantankerous and unapproachable, and that was before Saturday. Whatever’s going on between them, she can’t talk to him, and he can stay this way forever.”

“I know, but before, he didn’t have her. And as much of an asshole as he is, I know he doesn’t want to lose her.” He pauses for a moment. “Do you think I should let Sophie come to the sentencing? She’s young, but she’s mature for her age.”

There’s another pause before Gail speaks.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she says. “That’s her mother, and seeing Shalane hauled away in cuffs is probably not a good idea for her. You’ll talk to her when you get home.” Jason scoffs.

“When I get home—that’s rich. With him hiding in that office until the late evening hours, I don’t even know when that’s going to be.”

“Well, tonight, you may need to have one of the other gentlemen sit with Mr. Grey while he hides out, because your daughter needs you. He can neglect his family if that’s his choice, but you, sir, need to be here.”

I’m not neglecting my family! We had a disagreement and we haven’t been speaking as much for one day! That’s not neglect!

“I’m sorry we haven’t had that much time together,” Jason says. “First Australia, and now this.”

“You’ll just have to find a way to make it up to me,” Gail replies suggestively, and I hear the unmistakable sound of kissing.

I’m not neglecting my family. If I feel slighted, I have every reason to take some time to myself and get my mind together. What the hell is this neglect shit?

“You’ve seen him like this before. He’s cantankerous and unapproachable, and that was before Saturday…”

I’m not neglecting my family… am I?

I take a few steps back through the hallway, then double back, allowing my soles to announce my presence before turning into the dining room and heading for the kitchen.

“Are you ready?” I ask Jason as I enter the room. “Good morning, Gail.”

“Good morning,” she replies, smoothing her hair. “Coffee?”

“Yes, black please,” I say.

“I guess so,” Jason finally responds with a shrug. “I wouldn’t even go if I didn’t have to, but you know… Sophie…”

“Yeah, I know,” I say, taking a welcome sip of my coffee. I look down at the plate in front of him. “That’s a hearty breakfast you’ve got there,” I say, noting the healthy serving of what looks like chicken pot pie and… are those…?

“No, I’m packing this for lunch,” Gail says, placing a cover over the plate and placing it into a thermal bag. “I made one for you, too, if you want it. Ana made a homemade, deep-dish pot pie last night and there’s enough to feed an army, and of course, those mashed potatoes…”

Ana? Butterfly cooked last night? And the potatoes?

“Yeah,” I say, trying to be nonchalant, “We’ve got a busy day ahead of us today. Brown-bagging is probably a good idea.” Gail throws a knowing look at Jason which I ignore while taking another gulp of my coffee and looking at my phone. “Is her hair still purple?”

It takes a moment for him to catch on.

“I’m used to it now,” he says. “Worse things could happen.”

“I’m glad,” Gail says, “because she’s talking about touching it up.”

“Purple again?” Jason laments a bit. Gail nods. “Well, like I said, worse things could happen.” He takes the thermal bag from his wife and kisses her. “See you later, love,” he says. I finish my coffee and walk out behind him.

*-*

The courtroom is fairly empty. There’s no one here at the moment except the courtroom staff, minus the judge, me and Jason, and the district attorney. I can’t imagine going forth into something that is this life-changing and no one even shows up to support me.

The way that I understand it, Shalane has agreed to come to court and turn herself in, taking a plea on a lesser charge with the hopes of getting a lighter sentence. Jason sits in his seat looking straight ahead of him. I can tell that he’s lost in thought. He’s probably thinking that his entire life and the life of his daughter balances on what’s going to be said in this room today.

The doors open behind us and in walks Shalane and what appears to be her attorney. She’s dressed more modestly than I’ve ever seen her, but she looks very thin and pale. I can’t tell if she’s thinner than she was the last time I saw her or not, but she’s thin. Her hair is pulled back in a bun, making her face look even thinner, skeletal even. Jason raises his gaze when he hears the doors open and looks back. Their eyes meet and Shalane looks horrified. Jason just shakes his head and faces the front again.

“She’s still using,” he says. I look back at her and then at him.

“How do you know?” I ask. I know that meth users look frail anyway, but how would he know that she’s not just frail from using before?

“She looks like death,” he says, turning his gaze to me. “I haven’t seen her since the last time that we were in court because the few times that she requested visitation, I had to work, so Gail took Sophie to see her. She looks worse now than she did then, and I know that she was using then.”

He turns his gaze to the front of the courtroom again and Shalane stops right next to us.

Shalane's meth mouth in chapter 91

“Where’s Sophia?” she whispers harshly. When she bears her teeth at him, they look awful. I don’t remember them looking that awful the last time I saw her. She looks like she’s been chewing tobacco and never brushed her teeth. I turn my gaze away from her. She looks horrible.

“Not here,” Jason says without looking at her.

“You know as well as I do that I may not see her for a while. Why wouldn’t you bring her so I could say ‘goodbye?’”

Because he probably didn’t want her to see you looking like this! Jason doesn’t dignify her with a response. Her attorney urges her to take her seat. She throws a hateful glare at Jason right before the bailiff announces the judges arrival and Shalane scrambles to her place at the defendant’s table. Everyone is seated and Shalane’s case is announced. After the attorneys introduce themselves, the judge speaks.

“It is my understanding that in the case of the State of Washington vs Shalane Deleroy, the defendant wishes to enter a plea, is this correct?”

“It is, Your Honor,” Shalane’s attorney says.

“Is the office of the District Attorney aware of this plea?”

“We are, Your Honor,” the D.A. replies.

“Is the office of the District Attorney in agreement with this plea?

“We are, Your Honor.” The judge examines some papers in front of her.

“It is my understanding that the charges have been amended from conspiracy to distribute to possession of a controlled substance, is that correct?” the judge asks.

“Yes, Your Honor,” the D.A. confirms.

“Very well. Ms. Deleroy, would you please stand?” The judge says and Shalane gets to her feet.

“Do you understand the charges against you, Ms. Deleroy?” the judge asks.

“Yes, Your Honor,” Shalane responds.

“Okay. In the matter of the State of Washington vs Shalane Deleroy, on the count of possession of a controlled substance, Ms. Deleroy, how do you plead?”

“Guilty, Your Honor,” she says after a short pause.

“Counsel, you have reached a settlement?”

“Yes, Your Honor,” the D.A. says. “The people have agreed to a sentence of 18 months in jail followed by five years’ probation.” That’s all? She tried to sell a child, for fuck’s sake! But of course, she took a plea. Gotta love the justice system.

“Ms. Deleroy, do you know that by pleading guilty you lose the right to a jury trial?” the judge asks.

“Yes, your Honor,” she replies.

“Do you give up that right?”

“Yes, Your Honor,” she says flatly.

“Do you understand what giving up that right means?” the judge asks.

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you know that you are waiving the right to cross-examine your accusers?” the judge continues.

“Yes.”

“Do you know that you are waiving your privilege against self-incrimination?”

“Yes.”

“Did anyone force you into accepting this settlement?” the judge inquires.

“No, they didn’t.”

“Are you pleading guilty because you in fact were in possession of a controlled substance on the night of March 19, 2014?

“Yes, I was.”

“Very well, Ms. Deleroy, you are hereby sentenced to 18 months in jail, with review in a year, followed by five years’ probation, on condition that you complete a court-approved drug rehabilitation program.

“You are hereby remanded and without bail to the custody of the sheriffs of Kent county to be delivered for commitment to the Washington State Department of Corrections where you will be confined until final execution of this judgment and sentence prescribed by law. This court is now in recess.”

The gavel falls and we watch as the bailiff cuffs Shalane. She doesn’t resist or perform like she has been known to do. Her attorney says something to her as she’s being cuffed, and she just nods meekly. Moments later, she walks out of the courtroom with the bailiff without a word or looking back.

Jason is still deep in thought as we leave the courtroom and walk down the courthouse steps in the frigid cold. We walk in silence to the car and once inside. He starts the car and just sits there for a moment.

“Jason?” I say.

“Thank you for coming with me today,” he says.

“You’re welcome,” I reply. There’s a long pause.

“I loved that woman once,” he says, almost nostalgically. “At one time, she and Sophie were my whole life. And then, it seems like out of nowhere, we were at the other end of the spectrum. I was devastated when we got divorced. How does something change so drastically between two people who love each other?”

I can see his reflection in the rearview mirror, but he’s still looking straight ahead. I don’t have an answer to his question and I’m not certain if it’s rhetorical or not.

“Work it out, sir,” he says, and his eyes shift to mine in the reflection of the rearview mirror. “Whatever it is, whatever has you and Ana at odds, work it out and work it out fast. Don’t let it simmer. It only takes a minute to lose everything you love.”

We gaze at each other for a moment in the mirror before he puts the car in gear and heads toward GEH.

*-*

“It’s been a bit of a commotion today, sir,” Andrea says. “Mr. Holstein has called several times. I hear a hint of desperation in his voice. Allen has asked to be notified as soon as you arrive as he indicated that GEH is most likely looking at five lawsuits for wrongful termination…”

“From the ex-employees who failed the drug tests?” I ask, bemused.

“Yes, sir, it looks that way,” she replies. I scoff a laugh.

“Bring it on,” I say. “Tell him that I’m here and to bring the files and names of those losers who want to sue me.”

“Yes, sir,” she says and begins to dial the phone.

I walk into the office I left not 12 hours ago, Jason’s words ringing in my head to fix whatever’s wrong between me and “Ana.” He never calls her Ana, so either he was highly distracted or very serious. I remove my coat and rub my hands together. They’ve gotten a chill just from the car to the door. It’s really cold outside.

“Andrea, will you get me a cup of coffee, please?” I say into the intercom.

“Yes, sir,” she replies. I fire up my computer and of course, many emails greet me—responses from the department heads I’ve been harassing about projects that should have long since been started or even finished. I take several minutes to respond to them and give further directives. Then I can’t help but feel a bit of anger towards Ros for skipping out on me at such a crucial time, but I push the thought out of my head. It is what it is, so she gets one gimmie, but that’s it.

“Well, hello, Chris. So nice of you to join us,” Al says, breezing into my office in that way that he does.

“Don’t give me shit, Forsythe, I had things to do this morning,” I warn. “What’s up?”

“Well, first of all, Chocolate is walking on air that we finally got the ball rolling on SEEKNID,” he says. I raise my gaze to him.

“You told him that?” I ask.

“No, he told me,” he says. “He’s been getting calls about algorithms and the way the program is supposed to work in an ideal setting. He’s got an appointment to come down next Tuesday for his input and approval.”

I must’ve missed that email in the thousands that I’ve been reading over the past several days.

“Well, it’s good to know that someone around here is doing their job,” I point out. “So, what’s the angle—I drugged their coffee?”

“No,” he replies. “They’re actually claiming ADA protection.”

“You’re kidding me, right?” I say. “This is a joke, right?”

“Well, no. Under the ADA…”

“I know how the ADA works!” I snap. “Title I to be exact. The moment I decided that this would be a drug-free workplace, I educated myself on that.”

“Good, so I don’t have to explain it to you. The revolutionaries are trying to sue you for not making reasonable accommodations for their ‘illness.’ According to the lawsuits, as an employer, you should have provided counseling and cessation or rehabilitation programs instead of firing them.”

“And this is why I had to go all Rambo on my fucking company,” I lament, “because the inmates are running the fucking asylum.”

“There’s only eight of them, Chris,” he says.

“All eight of them are suing?” I ask.

“All eight of them have mentioned it,” he replies.

“And if only one of them is successful in this suit, employers everywhere will have to keep drug addicts on their payroll,” I respond. “This section of the ADA is supposed to protect people like Chuck, who had a bad spell but has cleaned their life up and is moving on, so that their prior mistakes don’t follow them to the grave—not strung-out or social-using opportunists who got caught. They’re not suing me because they’re sick. No, they’re suing me because they failed random drug testing, which is my right to perform as an employer, and I’m going to be performing it more often.

“No one came to me and said, ‘Sir, I have a problem I need treatment.’ They went out and partied the night before or the weekend before and they dropped dirty. So, if they have money to burn, let them go on and sue me, because I’m taking this all the way to the fucking top. Any lawyer with an ounce of sense knows this isn’t going to go anywhere. There’s no judge in America that’s even going to hear this. So, all I want to hear from this point on about these cases is how soon they’re going to be thrown out of court.” He twists his lips and nods.

“Christmas is at your house,” he says.

“Yes,” I say after a pause.

“When were you going to tell me?” he asks.

“Ana just decided this weekend,” I say. He raises a brow at me. “What?” His face falls to a slight frown.

“Nothing,” he replies.

“Out with it, Forsythe,” I demand. Everybody seems to be able to see that something is wrong, and I haven’t said a word or even behaved differently that I know of.

“Nothing,” he says again, “if you don’t see anything wrong with what you just said, neither do I. Have you started planning for February or are we just flying by the seat of our pants?” I frown.

“What’s happening in February?” I ask and his eyes widen.

“Green Valley? Smote the bastards? Hello?” I shake my head.

“I’ve been a little distracted with company business,” I reply.

“Well, undistract yourself!” he demands. “This is like one of the most important things that has ever happened in Jewel’s life!”

“Jesus Christ, I know,” I say, irritated. “Just give me definite dates and I’ll have travel plans ready.”

“Well, you may want a guest list, too, because it looks like you’re going to have a full-on entourage.” I frown.

“Entourage?” I ask. “That’s a bad idea. That screams of publicity, something we really don’t need.”

“Well, I’m going, and I know that if I’m going, Chocolate is going to be there.”

“We really don’t need legal representation for this, Al…”

“Well, then it’s a good thing I’m not coming as legal representation,” he interrupts. “I was around for this shit, Chris. I may not have been right there in her face, and I may not have been able to be by her side, but I was there. I felt everything that she felt and when she got back to Montesano at the tender age of 16, I cried with her while she told me what happened. I vowed that if it took my last breath, I would see these motherfuckers get what’s coming to them and I’m. Going. To Vegas.”

His brown eyes are piercing through me at the moment and I’m pretty certain he’d deck me if I tried to stop him. I sigh heavily and drop my head.

“I’m sorry,” I say, not able to give him any explanation as to why I was so insensitive of his emotional investment in all this. He’s silent for a moment.

“What’s going on with you, Chris?” he asks, and when I look up, he’s closing the door. I drop my head again.

“There’s so much going on in my life right now,” I admit. “We went to Australia to decompress and I come back to a shitstorm of motherfuckers not knowing what they’re doing. I’m putting all of my time and energy into trying to figure out what’s going on before my company collapses, and now I get the news that bastards are trying to sue me because I’m not letting them do drugs on the job.

“Ros is testing all of my patience. She took nearly three weeks off right at Christmas with no notice and right in the middle of a crisis because she’s pissed! She’s pissed because I decided to do random drug testing which sniffed out eight people so far, and because I’m turning the company upside down, but not to her specifications. It bothers the fuck out of me that Lorenz is floating around just as cool as you please while I’m running around here pulling out every strand of my hair.

“My wife has vowed not to come to GEH anymore because she feels like nobody respects her, and Ros was bordering on insubordination the day that she walked out of here.”

“She said that?” Al interrupts. “She said she wasn’t coming back because they don’t respect her?” I nod quickly and widen my eyes.

“Yeah, she did,” I confirm. Al scoffs, then chuckles. “What’s funny?” I ask with a frown.

“She’ll be back,” he says with a knowing smile, “and when she does, some fire’s gonna fly in this bitch.” I eye him speculatively, then roll my eyes.

“I’ve got another Ana to meet now?” I’ve got a feeling that’s the last fucking thing that I need.

“Oh, this Ana doesn’t have a name, but you’ve probably met her already. Tell me—if I’m not overstepping—has this surly, distracted, inattentive, bear-like, solemn persona made its way to your home yet?” He’s gesturing to me in the most belittling manner as he rattles off this list or unattractive adjectives that describe me perfectly these days.

“No, you’re not and yes, it has,” I confess. He twists his lips.

“Um-hmm, and how is Butterfly taking that?” he says, his brow furrowing. “I notice you haven’t used that particular term of endearment in this entire conversation.” Jesus, I haven’t? Is that what Jason was talking about?

“Things aren’t well,” he says. “There’s other things going on.”

“And none of them stemmed from this, right?” he presses. I don’t know how to answer that. We were planning to see our BDSM mentors anyway. When we got there, I made a confession and she accused me of wanting to be with other women. That had nothing to do with what’s going on here and neither did our going to see our BDSM mentors…

But my confession and the feelings surrounding it did.

“So, while you’re searching for an answer to that question, riddle me this. Have you ever seen Jewel get to the end of a situation that she couldn’t handle or that had just worked her nerves to the very end and flip the fuck out? I mean, completely turn into somebody you didn’t know?”

Flynngate and the Treehouse Trauma both come to mind immediately. Then, of course, there was the Crouching Tiger moment when the Pedophile put her hands all over me in front of a room full of people at my parents’ house. And let’s not forget holding a chopping knife to the Pedophile’s throat at the breakfast bar at Escala, and that cold woman that took over my kitchen the entire afternoon. I get a chill just thinking about it…

“And that…” Al says, pulling me out of my daydream and pointing a finger at me, “tells me that you have seen her in this state. And when she blows, be prepared for somebody to walk out, especially if her flamethrower is aimed at our little ‘hot shot in heels.’”

“Fuck,” I hiss. The last thing I would want to have to do is choose between Ros and my… Butterfly. I would really hate to lose Ros, but that’s a no-brainer. Al stands.

“Whatever fire is in the hole at home, fix it, Chris. You and I both know that although this is your pride and joy and you built it with your bare hands, none of this…” he gestures around the room, “is going to be worth anything to you without Jewel.”

Without Jewel? What does he mean by that? She’s not going anywhere! It’s not that bad…

Is it?

I sit there pondering just how bad the situation must be for Jason and Al to check me about it without even talking to my wife, and I’m surprised to see that Al has left and Jason has taken his place.

“It’s late,” he says. “I figure you might want your lunch.” He’s standing there holding the plate his wife made for me this morning along with some utensils. Food from the hands of Butterfly. I move to take it from him

“Thanks,” I say. He hesitates.

“It’s still cold,” he says. “You want me to have Andrea heat it up?” I shake my head and take the plate.

“No, I’ll do it, but ask her to get me something to drink, please.”

“What do you want?” I think for a moment.

“Cranberry juice and sparkling water on ice.”


A/N: Pictures of places, cars, fashion, etc., can be found at https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/raising-grey/

The new question and answer thread is always open for questions about the story. Be sure to read it and please adhere to the rules when asking questions. You can find it on the left, second from last on the menu or you can click HERE.

There has been yet another development where if you feel the need to talk to fellow readers about personal issues, you need a sounding board, you want to vent about something in your life, please feel free to visit the link on the left in the menu entitled “Do You Need To Talk.” No subject is taboo. I just ask that you approach the link with respect for those who have concerns as well as those who respond. You can also get to the link by clicking HERE

You can join my mailing list on the “Contact Me” page. Just click the link and it will lead you to a form to join the list.

~~love and handcuffs

 

Raising Grey: Chapter 70—The Women

Hello my friends,

One of my readers and Facebook friends Charlette Bishop has lost her son and is unable to properly lay him to rest. As many of us are parents, I’m certain that we can empathize with the unimaginable pain of possibly losing a child. Couple that with the distress of being unable to provide that child with a proper burial, and the situation becomes utterly unthinkable. I’m asking anyone who can to please follow the red link below and donate to the family’s efforts to bury their loved one. There’s strength in numbers, y’all, and I can guarantee you that ANY AMOUNT will be appreciated. Please help if you can.

Help A Family Bury A Beloved Son

I know every week, it seems like it’s something else, but you can’t time when these things are going to happen. Please, PLEASE help if you can. Thank you in advance.

GOLDEN—I’m getting a lot of inquiries about her. I haven’t abandoned the story, but I have to follow the Muse. I’ve been battling (and I do mean BATTLING) with a particular storyline for Raising and if I break off of it, I’m going to lose it. 

This is a work of creativity. As such, you may see words, concepts, scenes, actions, behaviors, pictures, implements, and people that may or may not be socially acceptable and/or offensive. If you are sensitive to adverse and alternative subject matter of any kind, please do not proceed, because I guarantee you’ll find it here. You have been warned. Read at your own risk.

I do not own Fifty Shades Trilogy, or the characters. They belong to E. L. James. I am only exercising my right to exploit, abuse, and mangle the characters to MY discretion in MY story in MY interpretation as a fan. If something that I say displeases you, please, just leave. If you don’t like this story or me, please don’t spoil this experience for everyone. Just go away. For the rest of you, the saga continues…

Chapter 70—The Women

ANASTASIA

“All the Grey women have gone on shopping sprees for our weddings,” Mia begins.

“I didn’t!” Val protests.

“Well, then, we rectify that now—for you and for Luma,” Mia protests.

“But I don’t need anything, child,” Luma says sweetly. “Herman gives me everything I need and more. I don’t even have to work if I don’t want to.”

“There’s not one little thing that you can think of that you may want for yourself?” I ask. “That’s the whole idea of the Black Friday shopping spree. I can almost guarantee that none of us actually needs anything. I’ll probably be loaded down with baby gear—since Harry is quickly introducing my son to the joys of walking. Val, I know you’re going to be on the lookout for cute maternity clothes and stuff for the baby’s room. This is the time to not think about prices and do the impulse shopping thing. Hell, I hate shopping, but I look forward to this every year.”

“Don’t worry, Luma,” Grace says, hooking arms with her. “I’ll show you how it’s done.”

By the time we’re getting ready to head to Miana’s, Luma has shed her timidity of shopping and has purchased some beautiful new pieces. She admits that she could use a color and trim but won’t go overboard at the salon. As usual, Sophie sticks close to me in this setting, but doesn’t say too much. I guess it’s up to me.

“So,” I say as we’re getting our pedicures. “Thanksgiving.” She twists her lips.

“Yeah—food, fun, family, yippee,” she says with little enthusiasm.

“You’re beginning to sound like a surly teenager,” I say, raising my brow. She sighs.

“Usually, it’s just me and Mags, talking about… whatever, and Mariah and Celida and let’s face it. They’ve been through some crappy stuff losing their mom and their dad, but they’re basically the same person and they’re both… so young. At first, hanging around them was kinda fun. Now, it’s more like babysitting.” She looks down at her toes as the technician trims her nails.

“And Marlow?” I ask. She twists her lips again but doesn’t make eye-contact with me.

“What about him?” she says, trying to be impassive.

“He was pretty upset when he left yesterday,” I inform her.

“Hmmm,” she says, unmoved.

“Why do you think that was?”

“Because his girlfriend was mad,” she informs me matter-of-factly.

“So, what was her problem?” I ask.

“She can’t take a joke, I guess,” Sophie mumbles.

“Is that what happened?” I press. “You were joking?” She looks up at me and her expression says that she’s aware that I already know what happened.

“I wasn’t talking about her,” Sophie fibs. “Maggie doesn’t like her—I don’t know why. She’s says Britney’s a phony and that she’s anorexic because she so skinny.” I nod.

“I see. So… you didn’t say anything about Britney needing a gravy sandwich.” Sophie twists her lips and looks back down at her toes.

“That’s what I thought,” I say.

“That’s not what I said,” she mumbles.

“Well, what did you say?”

“I said she should have some more gravy. That’s all,” she says petulantly.

“And of course, that had nothing to do with her being skinny, right?”

Maggie said she was skinny, not me!” she defends.

“But did the gravy suggestion follow Maggie’s comment?” I accuse, and my little friend is quiet again. I’m a shrink, kid. Don’t try to pull anything past me.

“Listen, Sophie, I’m not really sure what the issue is with you and Marlow’s… dates, but this sparring really needs to stop. It’s only going to piss him off, and it’s only going to make him—and you—feel uncomfortable at family gatherings. Since we consider you both part of our family, that would certainly be a less-than-ideal development. From what I gather, what you said about Britney hurt her. Now, I know that twit Maya was a real piece of work, but did Britney do anything to bring that on?” She twists her lips again. She twists her lips a lot. I think that’s her tell.

“No,” she admits, looking back at her toes again.

“Listen,” I say turning to her, “you know that if anybody does anything unfair to you or treats you badly, I’ve got your back. But I can’t defend you when you’re deliberately mean to people for no reason. You wouldn’t want anyone to treat you that way, would you?” She nervously starts to twitch and fiddle her fingers. “Is something going on? Do you want to talk?”

She raises beseeching eyes to me as if she’s begging me to understand how she’s feeling and just as I swear she’s about to open up and talk to me, Mia and Val gleefully burst into the room to get their pedicures. She looks at them and clams up again, shaking her head that she has nothing to say.

And the moment is lost.

I reach over and take her hand, causing her to bring her eyes to mine again.

“Anytime, Sophia,” I promise her. “You can talk to me about anything, anytime.” She drops her eyes and nods again, but says nothing else. How long is this poor girl going to carry this torch and bear this burden by herself? She either needs to say something about it or get over it and move on.

When we arrive at Grey Manor after the shopping and the primping, Marlow’s car is visibly one of the vehicles in the circular drive and Sophie suddenly has the look that she would rather be anywhere but here. She looks like a caged rabbit, like if I open the door and let her out, she’s going to run into the woods and disappear.

“Chuck, Keri, can you take Minnie inside and start unloading the bags? I need to speak to Sophie.”

Chuck looks at me for an instant, then nods and exits the car. Keri quickly leans into the back where Sophie and I are sitting and removes Minnie from her car seat, leaving me and Sophie alone in the car.

“Okay, Sophie, the last time you looked that green was at Mia’s reception. Shortly thereafter, you had one of the guards take you home. There’s nowhere to run. What’s going on?”

She gives me that same look again and I’m just waiting for someone to come knocking on the window or throw the car door open to ruin the moment once again. Thank God no one does.

“You have to swear to me that you’ll never tell anybody—nobody, ever—or I’ll never speak to you again!” she vows.

“I’ll never tell anybody anything that you tell me unless I feel like you’re in danger,” I promise. She sighs and looks down at her lap.

“I like Marlow,” she says, her voice small, “a lot. I know he doesn’t like me like that. I know I don’t stand a chance. I know I’m too young. I know this will never happen, but it doesn’t make me stop liking him. I look forward to family gatherings and holidays because I’ll get to see him—and then he shows up with some twit or some scarecrow. Last year at Thanksgiving, we had a great time! We talked, and he didn’t make me feel like a kid. We could always talk. At Christmas, and New Year’s… and then at Aunt Val and Uncle Elliot’s wedding, he danced with me. It was…” She trails off, looking straight ahead out the windshield. “… Really nice. And then, the girls started coming around and… he stopped talking to me.”

Her gaze drops back to her lap as she tries to find her words.

“It was just like one day, I didn’t exist anymore,” she says, her voice cracking. “He used to ask me about school and talk to me about what he wanted to do, where he wanted to go to college. Now, he doesn’t even speak to me when he comes into the room! I’m not stupid! He’ll be graduating soon and I’m not even in high school yet. He’s way out of my league. Geez, I don’t even have a league, but did he have to start treating me like I’m nobody? Like he doesn’t even know I’m alive? What does it matter what I say about his scarecrow, vomit-dress-wearing girlfriends if he doesn’t even know that I’m alive?” she wails.

She buries her face in her hands and begins to sob. I put my arms around her and let her cry. I can’t offer her any comfort. She’s right. Crushes are painful, and she’s got a crush on someone that she can’t have. They might as well be on two different planets for the chance that she has to be with him—at all. It’s good that she understands that, but it’s bad, too. There’s no hope for them, yet she has to see him at every. Family. Outing. And he’s not going to stop bringing his girlfriends around. Now is not the time for me to tell her to buck up and get over it. It’s just going to make it worse, so I just let her cry.

Her crying doesn’t subside, and she eventually lays in my lap and continues to weep. After she’s been there for a few moments, Marlow comes out of the house. He looks left to right as if he’s looking for someone, then he quickly strides to his car. I realize that Sophie and I are the only ones who haven’t come into the house, and he’s looking for us… or at least he’s looking to avoid us.

Don’t worry, Marlow, the coast is clear. She doesn’t want to see you right now any more than you want to see her.

After belting himself into the seat, he starts the car and drives off, unknowingly leaving Sophie in a puddle of her own tears.

*-*

I didn’t realize that I had completely skipped my session with Ace until Christian asked me about it at brunch the next day. I don’t even know if Ace expected me to keep a session on Black Friday. Nonetheless, I didn’t hear from him and he didn’t hear from me, so…

It’s time for the Greater Seattle Adopt-A-Family Reunion and I’m ready to see the families that we’ve helped throughout the years. Granted, Helping Hands isn’t the only charity that takes part in this occasion, but I’m still anxious to see the families that we’ve helped thus far. Last year, I was elegant in maternity green, but this year, I’m fierce in an elegant black halter gown with a beaded back and a pair of crystal-encrusted Circonvolu Strass Christian Louboutin stiletto strappy sandals. So that I don’t freeze my ass off, but I’m still able to showcase my gown, I’m wearing a burgundy custom-made full-length maxi coat that only buttons to the waist then flares out like a cape.

The rest of the ladies are equally elegant in their jewel-toned gowns and fancy footwear—Mia in rich magenta, Val and Mandy in brilliant blues, Luma in yellow topaz, and Grace in a deep, cheery pink. Our gentlemen all accompany us in sleek Brioni, Tom Ford, and Cesare Paciotti. Even my dad dons Armani for the occasion.

The initial portion of the evening has been changed from the usual cocktail hour to a more family-friendly meet-and-greet as some of the older children of the adopted families were invited to join us tonight. This, of course, means that Marlow is in attendance. I don’t know why I was fretting him bringing a date with him, but my concerns are unfounded as he accompanies his mother instead.

I can’t help but stare in wonder at the changes I see in them both since that day that we met. He was so angry, and she was so… small. She’s still a petite woman, of course, especially next to her very tall son, but back then, she was… emotionally miniscule. Her abusive husband had beaten all the life and energy out of her, and she was just here. Today, she looks vibrant and beautiful, refreshed. She’s telling me about her new beau, Zack—well, maybe not so new, she’s been seeing him for a few months now, but she won’t allow anything to become too serious too quickly. That’s the reason we haven’t met him yet.

We talk for a moment about Maggie and Marlow and the strides they’ve made in the last two years. She mentions that Maggie sometimes asks what happened to her father. She’s gotten older and understands the world a little better, but still doesn’t know the whole story. Marcia just glosses over it when the topic arises.

“It may be time to tell her the truth,” I counsel Marcia. “She’s old enough to understand and whatever hypotheses she formulates, you want them to be based on facts.”

I shouldn’t be surprised that I have to don the Dr. Steele-Grey hat tonight. I don’t mind, though. The families have all come a long way.

We’re seated for dinner and we enjoy a delicious rack of lamb with trimmings while we congregate and share stories. As usual, a slideshow comprised of pictures of the families and various happenings with the supporting charities follows dinner, I get a kick out of hearing the various exclamations of recognition when people see their family or their organization on the screen. When the slideshow is over, I begin to make my way around the room to do the necessary networking required to make connections and keep the donations rolling in. While I’m mingling, I scan the room hoping to see the one person that I haven’t talked to in eons.

“Thelma!” I say once I finally spot her. She’s wearing a beautiful evening gown, silver with a hint of blue, lace back and crisscross scooped front with a special extra feature.

“I see congratulations are in order,” I add, taking a seat next to her once we greet one another. “When are you due?”

“This little bundle is due in March,” she says, rubbing her belly, “but if he’s anything like little Jimmy, he’ll be here by Valentine’s Day.”

“Couldn’t wait to meet Mommy and Daddy, huh?” I ask. Thelma smiles.

“No,” she laughs. “He was in quite the hurry.”

“How are things going?” I ask.

“Oh, Ana,” she says. “Things couldn’t be better. Jimmy fought to shake that infection at first, but he never took time off—that’s why it wouldn’t leave completely. I fussed a little, but you know my Jimmy… he’s hard-headed. Once he was finally well, though, he put some healthy weight back on, and he was feeling like himself again and…” She points at her stomach with both index fingers and smiles.

“I can’t remember a time we’ve been happier except when we first got married. His bosses saw how serious he is about his job and how well he works, and they made him a supervisor—a raise, better benefits… I’m able to put money away for a rainy day now. It’s been so wonderful. I’ve been meaning to call you and catch you up on things, but it’s kind of hard to do these days,” she laughs.

“I can imagine,” I say.

“It was wonderful to get the invite to the gala,” she says. “I couldn’t wait to see you and tell you turned our lives around. I can’t begin to thank you…”

“Ana!”

I’m caught off guard by a man’s voice exclaiming my name. I turn around and see a very stocky James coming towards us carrying two large glasses of what looks like orange juice.

“James, hi,” I say, rising from my seat. He places the glasses on the table.

“Oh, I was so hoping I would see you,” he says wrapping me in a warm embrace.

“I’m glad to see you, too, James,” I say, returning his embrace.

“Please, call me Jimmy,” he says, releasing me with a smile. “Bella only calls me James when she’s mad at me.” I raise my brow.

“I’m Bella,” Thelma says, raising her hand, and I nod. Jimmy turns to his wife.

“Isn’t she glorious?” he says, looking lovingly at Thelma before kneeling down to her.

“Stop it, now,” she says, playfully swatting his shoulder. He gently kisses her cheek and takes her hand.

“Do you need anything else?” he asks. “Are your feet okay?”

“My feet are fine, Jimmy,” she says cupping his cheek. “And you can have one glass of champagne if you want…”

“Oh, no,” he says. “I’m not taking any chances. It’s orange juice for us both tonight. I have to get my packages home safe and sound.” He smiles at her before turning to me. “Is Christian here?”

“Right behind you.” I turn to see Christian approaching us with a half-smile. “I saw some man wrapped around my wife and figured I better come and investigate.” Jimmy laughs heartily as he stands.

“Well, you have no worries here,” Jimmy says giving Christian’s hand a firm shake. “I only have eyes for that beauty right there,” he adds, gesturing to his wife.

“How have you been, man?” Christian asks. “Things been okay?”

“More than okay,” Jimmy emphasizes. “I can’t begin to thank you for everything you’ve done for us. You saved my life, man.”

“Think nothing of it,” Christian says. “It was the right thing to do.”

“No, really,” he says, gesturing for Christian to take a seat. Christian holds my chair out and I sit while James continues to make his point as both gentlemen take their seat.

“I was living in a death trap. I foolishly had my family there. I don’t know what would have happened if you two hadn’t come along. Ana gave my family a safe place to be while I was going through my insanity—and Christian, what you did for me…” His voice cracks a bit while he’s trying to speak. “Just… thank you, man… thank you the whole world.” Jimmy quickly wipes away a tear.

“You’re thanking me by living a good life and taking care of your family,” Christian encourages, “which I see is growing! Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” Thelma says with her full-beam glowing pregnancy smile. Jimmy’s right—she really is beautiful. She wears maternity quite well. As Christian and Jimmy discuss due dates and daddy duty, I catch Val’s attention in the crowd and gesture for her to join us.

“I miss champagne,” she says playfully as she comes over to the table.

“Thelma, this is my sister, Valerie,” I introduce. Thelma takes her hand.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Thelma greets. “How did I not know that you had a sister?”

“Well, we’re not blood sisters,” Val says, “we’re sisters-in-love, in a lot of ways. We’ve been friends for years and we happen to marry brothers.”

“Well, sisters-in-love are the best kind,” Thelma says. “Please join us…”

Very soon, the women are chatting away about babies and marriage and what have you. Val shares her experience with Meg while Thelma talks about how we met and how our family helped her family. After a long conversation, Christian, Val, and I excuse ourselves and head back to our table.

“I’m going to desert you guys for a moment,” Val says. “Nature calls.”

“By all means,” I say as Christian and I head back to our table.

“Well that’s a success story if I ever heard one,” Christian says pushing in my chair for me.

“I’ll say. I barely recognized Thelma. She looks so healthy and happy. She was barely holding on when I last saw her. She was doing better, but you could tell that being without Jimmy was taking its toll on her.”

“I kinda get it,” he says. “Think about how well we did when we were apart.” I can only assume that he’s talking about me trying to take a nosedive off a cliff when he went to Madrid and him turning into Death when I went to Montana.

“Yeah, not the best times of our lives,” I say, trying to brush away the memories. I glad to hear a soft voice over my shoulder at just that moment.

“Ana, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to intrude… may I please speak to you for a moment?” Addie comes over to our table. She’s frowning, but not angry. Her face is… troubled.

“Sure, Addie. Do you want to go somewhere more private?” Addie seems rudderless. Christian stands and pulls a chair out for her.

“Please, Adelaide, sit,” he gestures. “I’ll go and refresh my drink.” Adelaide looks at him and nods before taking the seat he’s holding for her. He touches my shoulder gently and heads to the bar.

“What’s wrong, Addie?” I ask. “Are you okay?” She clears her throat.

“The Center,” she says. “It seems to be doing very well.”

“It is,” I say cautiously. “Once we got over our last speedbump for accreditation, things began to move very quickly. We can barely keep up.” She nods.

“I barely recognize the place from the pictures,” she says. “Grace had been working on it for so long. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t taken much interest in it as a project until you brought it to my attention.”

Oh, hell. Is she about to tell me that she wants to become involved in Helping Hands? I can’t turn her down, but…

“Unless it’s true what they say and you’ve found my granddaughter’s physical twin, is it safe to assume that the woman in the apron that looked like her was indeed Courtney?”

I’m caught off guard by the question. I thought I took special care not to use Courtney in any of the pictures to protect her anonymity from her grandparents.

“Yes, Addie… it’s Courtney,” I confess.

“I see. How long has she been here?” she asks.

“She never left,” I inform her. Addie nods and twists her lips.

“So much for teaching her a lesson,” she laments. I shake my head.

“Oh, Addie,” I say, “you have no idea. Courtney learned that lesson and more.” I turn towards her in my seat. “She made me swear not to tell you that she was still here. She feels like she’s hurt you and Fred enough and your words cut her to the quick.” Addie raises her head and her gaze meets mine.

“Am I supposed to feel guilty about what I said… after how she treated me?” she asks, appalled. I shake my head.

“You had every right to say what you were feeling after what you had been put through,” I reply, neither condoning or condemning her choice of words. “I’m only stating that they had the desired effect. Courtney feels that you two are better off without each other because of the way she treated you and because of your words to her. She was at Mia’s wedding reception.” Addie’s eyes widen.

“Mia’s…” Her words trail off. “They’re friends again?”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I admit, “but they’re cordial enough where Mia was okay for her to come to the wedding. It didn’t come easily.”

“I can bet,” Addie says. I catch her meaning, but I don’t bother trying to smooth it over. Apparently, Courtney was right. That bridge is too badly burned for them to walk back across it.

“I discovered her in a homeless shelter right before I had the twins,” I tell her. “She had asked me for help, but I turned her down. Like you, I felt she was a lost cause. Our security had been keeping an eye on her because she threatened me, and they informed me that she was at the shelter. I found her going through the classifieds looking for a job.

“Grace put her up at the shelter at Helping Hands and gave her a part-time job there. She moved to subsidized housing and she lived there for quite some time—in a terrible part of town—but she was grateful as she said anything was better than going back to Putchatoowak or whatever that place is called.” Addie turns her head to me, and I just keep talking.

“She enrolled in school.” That piques her attention. “I got her a laptop as she was in no position to buy one herself. However, she took the bus to and from school and got back to that horrible little apartment after dark. She said that she wasn’t afraid because the neighborhood guys looked out for her, but she was a young girl living alone going to and from school and work leaving in the early morning and returning after dark. I couldn’t in good conscience leave her in that position.

“I offered her my condo. She refused. I convinced her that it was an investment and begged her to take it. The place where she was living was roach-infested and unsafe. It was deplorable. We worked out rent that she could afford and she moved in, a condition of her stay being that she get good grades, she continues to work with Helping Hands, and she becomes an asset to us upon graduation.”

What is she studying?” Addie asks in disbelief.

“Social work.” She frowns.

“You’re kidding.” I shake my head.

“I’m not,” I tell her. “She wants to work with children. More than one abused or troubled teenager has come through the Center and Courtney has brought them out of their shell or made them feel safe. That’s what made her choose social work. You know that she had no skills and no direction before. Now she does.

“I’ve asked her several times to allow me to contact you and tell you about the change in her life—in her attitude and her outlook. She refused. She begged me not to tell you. She spotted you at Mia’s reception and made a hasty retreat before you spotted her.”

“No, she didn’t,” Addie says, now looking at the table. She didn’t what?

“She didn’t get away before I saw her,” Addie says as if I had verbalized my question. “I did see her. She was… beautiful… and I didn’t recognize her. I assumed that my eyes were playing tricks on me, not only because I had sent her back to Chuktapaw nearly a year ago, but also because I thought there was no way in hell that Mia would allow her to come to the wedding. So, I blew it off. I figured if I didn’t hear from her after what happened this summer, I wouldn’t hear from her at all.” I frown.

“What happened?” I ask. Addie raises her eyes to mine.

“Her mother died,” she says. “I was listed as next of kin and when they contacted me, I didn’t even ask about Courtney. Her father had disappeared years before apparently and nobody was there to claim the body. I had her cremated and interred in the family tomb. There was nothing much else to do.”

Shit. Courtney’s mother is dead. I’m sure she doesn’t know. Should I tell her… or just let sleeping dogs lie? Jesus, what a conundrum.

“Then, when I saw her in the picture—smiling and wearing an apron… and serving fruit bowls to children…” She trails off again.

“Well, she’s here,” I say, crossing my legs. “She’s living in my condo, she attends Seattle Central and she’s at Helping Hands every day.” Addie raises a brow at me.

“Are you trying to arrange a meeting?” she asks. I sigh. I can’t believe I’m about to say this.

“No, Adelaide. I’m trying to avoid one.” Her eyes widen.

“How is telling me where she’s going to be every second of the day considered a diversion tactic from a meeting?”

“Because the way that I’m understanding what you’re saying and how you’re feeling, if anything happened to Courtney, assuming you could get to her, you’d cremate her, inter her remains in the family tomb, call it a day and forget she ever existed—assuming you don’t opt to donate her body to science for spare parts.”

Addie glares at me. Yes, Adelaide, she told me what you said.

“You’re our friend,” I continue. “Your daughter died this summer and there was no funeral—no mourning of the loss of your child that we knew of. We didn’t get the chance to comfort you, to give you condolences… you sent your respects when Burton Grey died, and we don’t even know your daughter’s name. Either you’re the coldest woman in existence—and I don’t believe that for a second—or this candle has been burned from both ends and is completely destroyed.

“I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that Courtney is a changed person. I’ve watched the transformation myself for an entire year. She has a meaningful relationship—someone in her life who loves her very much. She’s got direction, drive, determination, but her wicks have disintegrated, too. She turned into a stuttering mess when she saw you at the reception and she got out of there as quickly as she could. She acknowledges what she did to you and how she treated you and for that reason, she doesn’t want to trouble you anymore, but she’s hurt, too.

“You wanted to hurt her, and you did,” I continue. “You wanted your words to cause her pain, and it worked. That knife cut through the bone. Nobody’s putting you in judgement because you were responding to an equally deep cut, if not a deeper one. But you can’t get offended because someone acknowledges the fact that what you said hurt her. It’s what you wanted, and you succeeded. Judging by how you feel about your daughter’s death and the fact that her passing gave you no concern for her daughter shows me that your pain and wounds are beyond the point of healing to the degree that you couldn’t even have a constructive conversation with Courtney.

“On the other side of that coin, Courtney’s in some place of martyrdom where she feels she needs to pay penance for what she’s done… not just to you, to everybody she’s ever hurt. In the process, she’s dealing with the gaping wound that your words left. So, the thought of even seeing you causes her anguish let alone speaking to you, not only because of what she did to you, but also because of what you said to her. To that end, it would be totally counterproductive on both ends for you two to see each other.

“If there are arrangements that need to be made in case of Courtney’s demise, let me know what you would like to do, and I’ll be the liaison to tell you that she has passed away should something happen to her. I won’t say anything about her mother unless she specifically asks. I think it’s better that she doesn’t know since there’s nothing that she can do about it.”

Addie shivers a bit, looking down at her frail, wrinkled hands.

“Thank you for being honest with me, Ana,” she says, her voice shaking, “though I wish you had told me this sooner.”

“I couldn’t,” I tell her. “I was sworn to secrecy, but I can’t avoid you seeing her on the screen. I wish I had been more careful about the pictures that we sent to the Greater Seatt…” Who sent the pictures? Who okayed pictures of Courtney? I wouldn’t have done that.

“Ana?” Addie says, bringing me back from my musings. I shake my head.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I just couldn’t tell you. She asked me not to and I had to respect her wishes. Had you not seen her in the presentation, she would still be somebody you thought you saw at Mia’s reception.” She nods.

“I’m going to find Fred,” she says. “I think I’d like to go home, now.” Without another word, she rises from her seat and walks off in the direction she came. I pop my neck like I’ve just finished a prize fight.

“Well, she didn’t look happy.” Christian is back by my side the moment Addie leaves.

“Where’s Grace?” I snap, and he immediately jumps back.

“Um, I don’t know,” he says a bit defensively. I begin to scan the room for her, and I see her in a conversation with some other guests. Ignoring my husband, I rise from my chair and stride over to her.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt,” I interject. “Grace, can I speak to you for a minute?”

“Of course, dear,” she says. “Excuse me, ladies.” I walk out into the hallway, not sure if Grace is following me. When I turn around, Christian and Grace are bringing up my rear.

“Ana, what is it?” she asks.

“Grace, I didn’t okay the pictures for the slideshow. Did you?”

“Yes,” she says, “I picked them all.”

“Including the one with Courtney in it?” I ask. She straightens her stance.

“Yes,” she says unapologetically.

“Knowing that Fred and Addie would be here?” Realization dawns on Christian’s face.

“Yes,” she replies finitely.

“Why would you do that?” I ask. “She has feverishly asked that we don’t tell her grandparents that she’s still here.”

“Because this is her family,” she says firmly. “Family needs to stick together, and you never know when you’re going to lose someone.”

“That’s not your place, Grace,” I say flustered. “You can’t push somebody’s hand until they’re ready!”

“And what if they’re never ready?” she retorts. “One of them will be looking down in a casket at the other and have nothing but regrets!”

“Then they’re never ready!” I say louder than I intended. “God, Grace, you may have caused more harm than good!”

“Then I’ll take that responsibility!” she snaps. “That girl is out on a limb doing everything she can to make something of herself and her life and she’s estranged from the only family that means anything to her. Her mother certainly doesn’t care…”

“Her mother’s dead,” I deadpan. Grace freezes.

“What?” she says.

“Addie’s daughter died this summer. I don’t even know what killed her. Addie never said a word. She retrieved the body, cremated it, interred it in the family tomb, and washed her hands. Courtney’s transformation is balancing on the head of a pin at any moment. I don’t have to tell you that—you’ve seen it. Yet, you think it’s a good idea to shove reconciliation down their throats that neither of them is ready for and probably don’t want because you feel like they should be speaking. How much sense does that make to you, Grace?” She’s struggling a bit for her words.

“You’ve proven my point,” she says. “She hasn’t seen her daughter in many years and when she does, she’s dead. She could have seen her before this, made amends before it was too late.”

“She hadn’t seen her daughter in years and when she did retrieve her body, she felt nothing,” I retort. “I would most likely do the same thing with my mother right now. She didn’t want to make amends! Unfortunately, Grace, some hurts don’t heal. So, while you’re trying to force a meeting that you think should happen, you might want to leave the psychoanalysis to the professionals!”

Grace gasps as I march away, and I hear Christian’s scolding tone behind me. I don’t care. She was wrong and it’s that simple. I head back into the ballroom and straight for the bar. I get a full glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. I can’t drink any hard liquor since I’m still here representing Helping Hands.

“Anastasia!” Christian hisses quietly, joining me at the bar. “That was totally unnecessary! You had no right to speak to my mother that way!”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Christian,” I say, taking my cabernet and moving away from the bar. “I didn’t speak to your mother that way. I spoke to a coworker—the director of Helping Hands—who used a charity function with our organization’s name on it to engineer a possible reunion that had nothing to do with her! She used her position to meddle in someone else’s affairs, a situation directly related to the Center no less. So, no, I wasn’t yelling at your mother and this has nothing to do with you!”

Christian’s face becomes stone and he pulls up to his full height.

“Very well, then,” he says. “The director of Helping Hands asked me to tell you that you can represent the Center tonight as she’s going home before she has one of her episodes.”

“Hmph,” I say, sipping my wine. “Her episodes. Didn’t her doctor warn us about her conveniently-placed episodes?”

Christian’s eyes become a metallic gray and he looks like he’s going to explode.

“Conveniently-placed or not,” he nearly hisses, “you yelled at my mother and she’s going home. Now, if you’ll excuse me…” He turns around and strolls coolly away from me as if we were just talking about the weather.

And that’s the last thing he says to me all night. It’s a fucking repeat of Val’s housewarming.

I try to keep up appearances, that London is not burning in the Grey camp, but everyone in our family can clearly see that Grace and Carrick have left and that Christian is avoiding me. Just when I’m sure that I’ve had just about enough of Christian hobnobbing with everyone else at the affair but me, I realize that he’s not quite finished making me feel shitty.

“You yelled at Mom?”

I turn around and find Elliot confronting me about mine and Grace’s altercation. I know that my mouth is hanging open, but I have no idea what my face is saying, because Elliot’s expression is clearly saying, “Oh, shit, what the fuck did I just do?”

I quickly scan the room for my husband. When I see him, he makes eye-contact with me almost immediately, then turns away and continues his conversation.

Welp, that’s enough for me.

I grab my clutch and wordlessly walk away from my brother-in-law. I retrieve my coat from the coat check and go out front to one of the waiting taxis.

Jesus, that’ll add fuel to the fire.

I say a prayer for my safety and get into one of the taxis, giving the driver my address and promising a huge tip if he gets me there quickly and in one piece.

He does.

“Mrs. Grey!” the guard says when I get to the gate. “What… where’s your detail?”

“Please open the gate,” I say, emotionally exhausted. The cabbie drops me at the portico, and I give him a hundred-dollar bill.

“Thank you, ma’am!” he says, awestruck.

“Thank you for getting me home safely,” I tell him. “You have a good night.”

When I walk into the grand entry, Windsor is rushing over to me. He has a puzzled look in his eye, no doubt wondering where everyone else is.

“Windsor, do you ever sleep?” I ask handing him my coat. He smiles.

“Yes, ma’am, I do.” I just nod and climb the spiral staircase. I look at my bedroom door, then I look at the nursery door. I opt for the nursery. I check on my children, and Mikey is sound asleep with his two middle fingers in his mouth. I check on Minnie and she’s silently looking up at me. No fussing, no fidgeting, just looking at me.

“Were you waiting up for me, Minnie Mouse?” I say to her sweet little face. I take her out of the crib and lay her on my shoulder, gently patting her back. She’s bringing me comfort, not judging me for how I spoke to her grandmother or for being Mrs. Grey or not saying something I should have or…

I sit there silently for a long time with my daughter, drawing on her unconditional love to give me some strength. It seems like I have to be strong for a lot of people, and lately I don’t have time for myself anymore. That can actually be a good thing, since it means that I don’t focus on my PTSD so much. I twist my lips and think about how I feel the need to journal right now. Then I remember Jason’s advice:

Talk to anyone who will listen.

Minnie will listen. She may not be able to respond or give me advice, but she’ll listen.

Then, I have visions of her subliminally absorbing what I’m saying and having nightmares about whatever incarnations of the Boogeyman that a baby’s brain can conjure.

That’ll never do… so I come up with another idea.

“Once upon a time, there was a girl named Cinderella,” I begin, sitting in the rocker with my daughter. “She lived in this great apartment and she had great friends and a great life. She didn’t have a boyfriend or anything besides this one psycho guy who thought they were meant to be together but that’s a different story.

“One day, she met this really beautiful prince with a really bad attitude. She just wanted to get away from him, but no matter what she did, she couldn’t escape. She fell in love with him and her whole life changed. People thought she didn’t have a right to be the princess. They called her names and talked about her being a bad person and only wanting the prince’s money and castle, but she loved him anyway. So, she ignored what the people said and stuck by her prince.

“As fairytales go, they got married in a beautiful castle and drove away in a classic chariot and flew away on a magic carpet to a faraway land to spend time together. Now, you would think that they lived happily ever after, but that’s not what happened.

“They had to come back to the real world from their faraway land, and terrible things happened, too many things to tell you, but Cinderella no longer felt like she lived in a castle with her prince. She felt like she was running from demons and devils and monsters all the time. People were always making her account for her thoughts and deepest feelings even when they were scary. People were sometimes trying to hurt her or even kill her…”

Too graphic.

“She longed for the days when the members of the court had nothing to do with her life, when it was just talking to the Mad Hatters all day and drinking wine and spending time with her friends all night.

“She misses quiet nights on the balcony and driving down the coast to nowhere, letting the sea breeze wash away her troubles.

“She misses unassuming daydreams about what her future holds—the things she could see and what she could become.

“She misses not being expected to be perfect because she’s married to the prince.

“She despises what people think they know about her and how they expect her to behave and their preconceived notions and theories about who she really is.

“She misses the simple, unassuming life that she once led…”

I sigh as I hold my daughter, now sound asleep on my chest.

“I don’t like being Cinderella,” I whisper matter-of-factly.

I sit with my sleeping baby for several more minutes, until I actually drift off myself in the rocker. When I wake, I put her back in her crib and slide out of my sleek silver strappy stiletto sandals. When I look out the door, the hallway is quiet. I don’t know how long I’ve been asleep, but it appears that no one’s home yet. I quietly close the door to the nursery and look at the door to our owner’s suite.

Cinderella’s room.

I don’t want to go in there.

I try to remember which room isn’t taken, assuming anyone wants to come back to my house tonight, the wicked old Cinderella who yelled at the queen.

I go into guestroom three and drop my shoes on the floor. I lie on top of the blankets fully dressed and fall asleep.

*-*

I’m disoriented when I awake. I don’t know where I am and for a brief moment, I forgot what happened the night before. I stretch and I feel an arm around my waist. I know how my husband feels so I don’t need to turn around. He’s coiled around me like he normally is and he, too, is fully dressed—well, at least shirt sleeves and pants that I can see. I need to get up. I slept like the dead and didn’t empty my breast all night. If I don’t relieve them soon, I’m going to ruin a perfectly good gown. I move a bit to wake Christian, but he shifts and pulls me closer to him. Well, that didn’t help. I sigh, thinking that I’ll have to jolt him from his sleep in order to get away.

“I heard you tell Minnie that you don’t like being Cinderella.”

I freeze. Shit, he heard my conversation with my daughter? I fucking hate that shit. I’ve done my fair share of eavesdropping, but I hate that he heard that—for many reasons. I was emotional when I said it; it was a private moment with my little girl; and it sounds really bad.

“You don’t like your life as it is?” he asks when I say nothing. I think about my response.

“I don’t like what’s expected of me simply because of who I am,” I reply honestly. “I have to behave a certain way, do all the right things, say all the right things, make all the right decisions and if I don’t, there’s hell to pay.”

“But, baby, that’s part of being an adult.” I wrench out of his grasp and sit up.

“No, Christian, that’s part of being Anastasia Grey,” I say, turning to face him. “I was an adult before I was Anastasia Grey, and I wasn’t under scrutiny for everything I said and did. Anastasia Steele came and went as she pleased. There was no one looking over her shoulder, no security details, nobody watching her every move. She was an adult, too, and she was not under the microscope. No one accused her of being a gold-digger. Nobody turned their noses up to her because of who she was or what she had. She only had to prove who she was, prove she was worthy, when she met you. Anastasia Steele became Cinderella and suddenly, her entire life—the good, the bad, and the ugly—are on display for everybody to see, and no matter what happens, Cinderella has to keep smiling. Cinderella has to keep representing the castle. Cinderella’s not allowed to hurt in public or fall apart in public and heaven forbid if Cinderella has a human moment at all. Le gasp, call the congeniality police! We have a major violation here! So, yes, there are many times when I don’t like being Cinderella!”

I rise from the bed and leave the guest room. I need to get to my breast pump or the shower before Niagara Falls releases from my boobs.

CHRISTIAN


“She’s not in the ladies’ room, Christian,” Val informs me after I’ve combed nearly every inch of this place looking for my wife. At first, I thought she was just being childish. Now, I’m scared shitless because I don’t know where she is. Bad things happen when my wife disappears.

“Sir,” Jason darts over to me and puts his hand on my arm. “I’ve tracked her phone. She’s at the Crossing.” I frown.

“How did she get all the way to Mercer and we didn’t know she was gone?” I bark.

“Because Chuck’s not here and she’s not wearing a tether, sir, except for her phone,” he retorts. “Remember tonight’s protocol? Chuck’s leaving town, we’re around family and friends, no need for extra security…”

He’s right. I agreed to lighter security tonight. Chuck has to be in South Dakota for his and his mother’s case against their brother. I can’t blame anyone for this one except myself…

And my careless wife.

She probably didn’t want to face me because of how she treated Mom.

“Let’s go,” I growl, heading for the door.

Everyone thought it best to head to their own abodes instead of coming to Grey Crossing, anticipating a showdown between me and my wife. The house is a tomb when I enter, only Windsor stirring to greet me.

“Mrs. Grey?” I hiss.

“She’s upstairs, sir,” he responds. “Will anyone else be coming tonight?”

“No,” I say, loosening my tie and taking the stairs two at a time. I head straight for the closed doors of our suite, but then I hear her voice to the right of me…

“Once upon a time, there was a girl named Cinderella…”

It’s coming from the cracked door of our babies’ nursery. Well, isn’t that adorable, I think angrily to myself. I’m tearing up a banquet hall looking for her and she’s here reading bedtime stories. I’m particularly livid after discovering that she took a goddamn taxi home!

“One day, she met this really beautiful prince with a really bad attitude. She just wanted to get away from him, but no matter what she did, she couldn’t escape. She fell in love with him and her whole life changed. People thought she didn’t have a right to be the princess. They called her names and talked about her being a bad person and only wanting the prince’s money and castle, but she loved him anyway. So, she ignored what the people said and stuck by her prince.”

Wait a minute. I’m new to this Disney thing, but even I know that’s not how that story goes. I lean against the wall next to the door and listen to her describe Cinderella’s life after she married the prince—the scrutiny, her fears, the dangers that followed her. I sigh heavily listening to her talk about how she misses how simple her life was before she met the “prince.”

“I don’t like being Cinderella…”

And it didn’t take a rocket scientist or even that statement to know that she was talking about us.

This conversation—this altercation or whatever it was that happened with her and Mom and more importantly, her leaving in a damn taxi without security—it needs to be addressed, but not tonight. She sounds raw and a bit vulnerable and this is not the time.

I go to our room and remove my jacket, tossing it and my tie onto the bed. I want a drink but think better of it. Instead, I’ll just sit here and wait.

And wait…

And wait…

And wait.

My mind replays the conversation she had with my mom. From what I understand, Mom was trying to orchestrate a possible meeting between Adelaide and her granddaughter and apparently, Butterfly and Courtney knew nothing about it. I don’t have all of the details, but she was pretty hard on my mom and I really thought that was very unnecessary. Mom left shortly after Adelaide did and… to be honest, I’m pretty gray—pun intended—on what happened after that.

My wife and I had some words, they weren’t kind, and I refused to argue with her in public. According to Mom, she would have to represent Helping Hands for the rest of the evening, and I was doing my best not to hinder that, but when Elliot asked me where Mom was, I told him the truth. The last time I saw her, she was glaring at me and Elliot was glaring at her, so I assumed he had asked about the altercation. I turned my head for a second, and when I looked back, she was gone.

I didn’t think anything of it. I thought she had taken Elliot aside to tell him her side of the story, but when a while later I saw Elliot and no Butterfly, I thought she had explained things, and everything was okay…

Until…

“Man, if looks could maim, I’d be castrated by now,” Elliot says. “All I could think was ‘back away slowly’ which is what I was trying to do, but then she just whirled around and took off out the door.” I frown deeply.

“Out the door?” I ask. “Where did she go?” Elliot shrinks a bit.

“I assumed she went to the ladies’ room,” he says. I look at my watch.

“Elliot, that was over half an hour ago. Nobody has seen her since!” I announce.

“Hey,” Val says, interrupting our conversation, on purpose no doubt. “Why so serious?”

“Val, would you mind terribly checking out the ladies’ rooms and seeing if my wife is hiding out in one of them?” I ask. She raises her brow knowingly to me then looks at Elliot.

“Mom and Montana had words,” he tells his wife. “It hasn’t been a good night.”

Grace and Ana,” she says, a statement, not a question.

“And me,” I admit, “but we didn’t fight. I was just not happy about her yelling at my mom.” Val twists her lips and rolls her eyes.

“I’ll be back,” she says as she heads off to the restrooms.

And now, I’m here, waiting and waiting for her to finish her remix of Cinderella with whatever child has her attention now. After waiting for I don’t even know how long, I toe out of my shoes and go back to the hallway. The nursery door is closed now, so I peek inside.

She’s not there.

I go down to the kitchen to see if she’s gone in search of a snack or a drink. She’s not there either. She’s not in the family room, the entertainment room, the movie room, her parlor, the office, or the gym.

Where the fuck is she now?

I’m almost tempted to activate the two-way but decide against it this late at night. I go back up to the second floor and begin to check the guest rooms. I would have thought not, but with the whole hating Cinderella thing…

Sure enough, I find her in the last guest room, curled up on the bed in her evening gown fast asleep.

And we’re sleeping in our clothes again.

I crawl in bed behind her and spoon her, falling asleep almost instantly.

*-*

“I had no idea that being married to me was such a goddamn trial,” I say to Jason while running on the treadmill the next day.

“You’re kidding, right?” Jason says. I look at him bemused. “No offense, sir, but working for you is a trial. I can only imagine what being married to you is like.” I frown.

“Don’t try to be cute,” I hiss. “It doesn’t suit you.”

“I’m not!” he snaps back. “That woman has been in your life for two and a half years. I know it’s not all bad, but I haven’t seen anybody go through the trials and tribulations that woman has been through just being married to you. Everybody’s watching her, people are gunning for her, she’s got to prove herself all the damn time… She can’t step wrong, she can’t be unhappy, she can’t be human. It’s a miracle she hasn’t had a nervous breakdown by now.”

“But she couldn’t have expected it to be easy when she agreed to marry me,” I protest. “Look at my life! She knew what she was signing up for.”

“Yeah,” he says, and nothing else. There’s something else behind that.

“Yeah, what?” I ask. He looks over at me without losing his stride.

“She’s still human, boss,” he says with a running shrug. “Whether you know what you’re signing up for or not doesn’t necessarily mean that you take it all in stride when it comes at you. And last night’s episode had nothing to do with being married to Christian Grey…”

“I didn’t say that! She did!” I protest.

“You didn’t let me finish,” he says. “It had nothing to do with being married to you, but it had everything to do with her version of Cinderella. She’s got responsibilities to people. One of those responsibilities was exploited last night and she was supposed to be okay with it—plaster a smile on her face and keep the night going. Nobody acknowledged her point of view last night. Whether it was right or wrong, nobody bothered to say, ‘I get it.’ Mrs. Wilson wanted to know why no one told her the truth about her granddaughter and she left upset. Dr. Grey was dug in that Mrs. Wilson had a right to know that her granddaughter was still here no matter what the consequences and she left upset.

“You heard your wife yelling at your mother and your mother left upset and that made you upset and you cut her off. Granted, you did it to prevent a public spectacle—which was smart—but she still got cut off. Then, whatever you told Elliot, he confronted her, and she was already burning the wick at both ends.” He does that imitation of an explosion with his hands and mouth. “We’re lucky she didn’t check into a hotel somewhere and turn her phone off. We were downtown after all.”

“God,” I sigh. “Our marriage isn’t going to survive this constant up and down.” Jason slows his treadmill down.

“Yes, it will,” he says, catching his breath. “This is marriage. It’s a constant up and down until you die, and you haven’t even hit your highest ups or your lowest downs. Why do you think they say love is a roller coaster? You didn’t expect it to be easy, did you?”

Yeah, I kinda did. My mistake.


A/N: Pictures of places, cars, fashion, etc., can be found at https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/raising-grey/

The new question and answer thread is always open for questions about the story. be sure to read it and please adhere to the rules when asking questions. You can find it on the left, second from last in the menu our you can click HERE.

There has been yet another development where if you feel the need to talk to fellow readers about personal issues, you need a sounding board, you want to vent about something in your life, please feel free to visit the link on the left in the menu entitled “Do You Need To Talk.” No subject is taboo. I just ask that you approach the link with respect for those who have concerns as well as those who respond. You can also get to the link by clicking HERE

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~~love and handcuffs

 

Raising Grey: Chapter 69—Big, Huge “Guess What Happened’s”

Thanks, you guys for your encouraging words to me… and thank you more for your encouraging words to each other. It makes me happy to see us lifting each other up when we’re down. I’m so proud of you guys!

Send healing vibes, prayers, and positive thoughts out to my reader and Facebook friend Alyson. She just had a stint in the hospital and by the Grace of God, she’s home and hopefully doing better. Smoochies, Alyson!!!

This is a work of creativity. As such, you may see words, concepts, scenes, actions, behaviors, pictures, implements, and people that may or may not be socially acceptable and/or offensive. If you are sensitive to adverse and alternative subject matter of any kind, please do not proceed, because I guarantee you’ll find it here. You have been warned. Read at your own risk.

I do not own Fifty Shades Trilogy, or the characters. They belong to E. L. James. I am only exercising my right to exploit, abuse, and mangle the characters to MY discretion in MY story in MY interpretation as a fan. If something that I say displeases you, please, just leave. If you don’t like this story or me, please don’t spoil this experience for everyone. Just go away. For the rest of you, the saga continues…

Chapter 69—Big, Huge “Guess What Happened’s”

CHRISTIAN

“She did what?” I ask my wife when she calls home to see who’s here for Girl’s Night.

“She shaved her head,” she confirms. “It really looks good on her, but Christian, she shaved her goddamn head!”

“Where is she now?” I ask. “Can she hear you?”

“No, she’s in the back getting the rest of her stuff. Oh, God, I’m so sorry, Tina,” she mumbles.

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Butterfly,” I comfort.

“I want to fucking fire somebody, but she’s a grown woman! I can’t tell her not to shave her head!” she rants.

“Don’t fire anybody,” I coax. “Women do this all the time nowadays. It’s not a strange thing.”

“So, if Minnie came home with her head shaved, you wouldn’t have a problem with it,” she states matter-of-factly. My blood actually curdles when she says that.

“We’re not talking about Minnie,” I divert. “We’re talking about a grown woman who has just lost her mother, went through a nasty divorce, and has had to contend with horrible siblings who have now broken into her house.”

“Well, it feels the same to me,” Butterfly says. “I feel like Tina trusted me with her daughter and I took her out and got her scalped.”

“Believe me, my mom is laughing right now,” I hear Harmony say, and I know that she’s caught us in the middle of our conversation.

“You scared the shit out of me!” Butterfly scolds.

“You shouldn’t be talking about me,” Harmony teases, and it’s good to hear the humor in her voice. “Hi, Christian!” she yells.

“Hi, Harmony,” I reply, and Butterfly relays my sentiment. “Just so that I can prepare the staff, are we talking Bruce Willis bald or Demi-Moore-G-I-Jane cut?”

“Demi,” she says, a bit reserved. “I just… wish she had warned me.”

“You were the one talking about detoxing and cleansing. This is very cleansing. I love it. It feels clean and free and I look great. I think I’m going to leave it this way for a while.”

“It’s not like you have a choice!” Butterfly points out.

“I do have a choice,” Harmony says. “I could let it grow back. I’m thinking not.”

“Well, it’s your head,” Butterfly says.

“Yes, and let’s stop talking about it. I’m starving.”

“Good, ‘cause we’ve got Girls Night. On our way babe,” she says into the phone. “I didn’t get a chance to tell you what happened at your house…” and the line goes dead.

Harmony shaved her head. Good grief.

I don’t know what my wife meant by Girls Night, but as it turns out, only Victoria and Courtney show up. Gail and Ms. Solomon keep them well stocked with food and snacks while one of us guys plays bartender from the bar in the entertaining room. We offer to spare Chuck the trouble of transporting drinks, considering that he’s a recovering alcoholic, but he assures us that he’s not even tempted. I have no doubt, considering that we couldn’t even get him to take ibuprofen when he was suffering from broken bones.

The women retreat to the movie room and burrow in for the night, watching a plethora of movies from different genres. We’ve each been unlucky enough to walk in during some scene or conversation that has the entire group weeping like fools and are quick to make a hasty getaway. Somewhere around three or so, all four women are kicked back in the luxury chairs, calling the sandman.

In the morning, they all pile into the big SUV and head to breakfast—somewhere—with two of the guards and I’m ceremoniously summoned to my father’s house.

“Elliot finished the room on Thursday right in time for delivery,” he says as he leads me to a newly renovated room in the house. I’m by no means prepared for what I see when I open the door.

“Jesus Christ, Dad,” I breathe when I step inside, “Freeman was teasing you for getting this?”

“Remember, son, we’re clearly talking about an asshole here,” he reminds me. Oh, yeah, how could I forget.

I walk around the room completely stunned. Every wall is covered with display cases, and there are more of them lined up in the middle like library shelves. Case after case after case of model, wood, and Diecast cars—antiques, roadsters, sedans, trucks, you name it. The higher portions of the walls have been decorated with old pictures of Dad and his brothers, Pops and Granma Ruby, Mom and Dad when they were younger, and even old pictures of me, Elliot, and Mia. Atop the display cases are my old rowing trophies from the boathouse, Elliot’s judo trophies, and awards and accolades that Mia has received throughout the years. There are also some older trophies that I don’t recognize, and I assume that they’re from years gone by of Dad and his brothers.

“With real cars, Dad may have been a Ford man, but when it came to his models, he didn’t discriminate.” He leads me to one display case that’s full of Chevys and I’m amazed at how realistic they look.

“I tried to get the room as close as I could remember to how Dad kept it,” my father says, touching the display lovingly. “Look at this…” He gently opens one of the cases and pulls out one of the model cars. The doors actually open and you can see the detail inside the car.

“Dad painted those seats himself,” he says as he holds the car up to eye level. “The paint’s faded a bit over time…”

“… But I can tell,” I say, examining the car closely in my father’s hand. “Wow…” The amazement in my voice brings a warm smile to my father’s face.

“We spent hours in here,” he reminisces as he closes the doors to the model in his hand and replaces it on the shelf, “or I should say in a room that looked just like this one. The other brothers never really got into it but me…” He put his hand on my shoulder and leads me to a table in the corner, clearly built as its own showcase, and there it is. I gasp a bit when I see it.

“The Coupe!” I exclaim quietly in wonder. On the small table is a perfect replica—almost—of the classic ’32 Ford Coupe that we had shipped here for Dad. The purple isn’t as deep as the real car, and the model has racing flames on it. But other than that, this car is Dad’s Coupe.

“Uncle Herman was right,” I say, looking at the model then at Dad. “Pops meant for you to have that car. He built it damn near just like the model.” Dad nods.

“That was my dad,” he says. “He always paid attention to the small stuff, and it made all the difference in the world.” He chokes up for a moment but quickly recovers. “I hope that one day your son will be able to enjoy this room with me… or with you…”

I don’t like the ominous undertone of his suggestion.

“He’ll get to enjoy it with you first, Dad,” I say, putting my hand on his shoulder. “You’ll tell him the history of the cars and how they made it to the collection. I’m sure that you remember each one.” Dad smiles.

“That I do, son,” he says.

As predicted, Dad and I spend hours in his model car room, talking about each car and how it became part of the collection. We don’t have time to review each and every car, but each car that we talked about had its own story attached to it. Freeman is a real asshole if he can’t see how priceless a gift this really is.

“This is really incredible, Dad,” I say, trying to absorb everything he’s told me about each car. “This is a car enthusiast’s dream.”

“Or the fairytale-land of a little boy who really looked up to his dad,” he says, gazing over the room fondly.

“Where’s Uncle Herman?” I ask when I realize that I haven’t seen him since I got here.

“He and Luma have gone out of town, I think,” Dad says. I frown.

“You think?” I ask. He shrugs.

“I think seeing Mom’s things made him a bit melancholy. So, he asked me and Grace to keep an eye on the girls and he whisked his woman away for the weekend. You can’t deny they need some time to themselves. Herman’s been dealing nonstop with the disposition of Dad’s estate. Luma has the girls and although I’m sure that you’re a very nice boss, she works 40 hours a week. She and Herman don’t really get much alone time together.” I nod.

“Maybe she should consider going part-time,” I suggest.

“I didn’t tell you that so that you could cut her hours, Christian,” Dad informs me. “I get the feeling that Luma really likes her job, and she hasn’t complained about it once. Had I not told you that she was away with Herm, you wouldn’t have known. Did she ask for any time off?”

“Well, no…”

“Then leave it be,” Dad instructs. “She likes going to work and she’s not the least bit unhappy. And even though Andrea is her superior, Luma’s very fond of her. She talks about Andrea like she’s her daughter and she respects her—and you—immensely. So, if you suggest that she shorten her workweek, she’s going to do it even if she doesn’t want to. Catch my drift?” I sigh.

“Yeah, Dad, I hear you,” I say, sounding like a scolded child.

“Good. Now come and have a scotch with me and let’s celebrate my fabulous Dad and this incredible car collection.” I smile.

“You got it, Dad.”

*-*

“You’re not going to believe whose about to lose their shirt,” Lorenz says coming into my office Monday morning. He’s piqued my attention.

“Who?” I ask.

“William Kavanaugh,” I raise my brow.

“Kavanaugh?” I say in surprise. “What the hell is going on with Kavanaugh?”

“It appears that Willie Boy has another heir to the Kavanaugh fortune on the way, and Mrs. K has had enough. She’s got herself a cutthroat attorney and Kavanaugh will be lucky if he escapes with his shirt!” I whistle.

“So, the chickens have come home to roost on Kavanaugh, huh?” I say.

“Looks that way,” Lorenz confirms taking his seat.

“How much time before he’s ripe for the picking?” I ask.

“Now,” Ros says, striding into my office and joining into the conversation like she had been there the whole time. She’s got the latest Financial News in her hand and she drops it on my desk, open to the page announcing that Kavanaugh Media is officially on the block. “You heard, too?” she says to Lorenz, who nods.

“This must have been going on for quite some time,” I observe while reading the announcement.

“Their marriage has been falling at least since Kavanaugh became a grandpa.” That long! Geez, that’s back when Kate tried to pin her kid on Elliot. I wasn’t even married yet.

“And the newest heir to Kavanaugh Media?” I press.

“Due any day now,” Lorenz says. “The misses filed for divorce nearly a year ago. He’s selling Kavanaugh Media because the selling price is worth more than the company would yield in its current state and he knows he can get it.”

“That’s because he doesn’t have time to hold out,” I say, finishing skimming the article. “I’m not interested in the media but selling that bitch off piece by piece could turn quite the hefty profit no matter what we pay for it.”

“You were reading my mind,” Lorenz say. I raise my eyes to Ros.

“You think we could put a decent bid up for it?” I ask. “We all know I’m the last person that fucker wants to sell to.”

“I’ll see what we can do,” Ros says, standing. “You never know, Christian. People do strange things when they’re desperate.”

“That they do,” I concur as she leaves my office.

“Lorenz, how did you guys land on this before I did?” I ask after Ros leaves.

“It’s my job to keep my ear to the ground,” he tells me. “I know a lot of people; I go to social events. One person’s rumor is another person’s truth… That’s pretty much how. Kavanaugh’s next love child was no more than water-cooler talk at the champagne fountain of some fundraiser somewhere. It snowballed into divorce and the sale of Kavanaugh Media because the guy is about as discreet as a Tyrannosaurus Rex stomping down 4th Street. He was able to keep it out of the press for most of the year because—face it, he is the press. But once that media giant went on the block, all the rumors and speculations became leads and…” He makes an exploding sound and motion with his hands.

“So, basically, getting him to sell could be as simple as the right approach,” I reply, because Kavanaugh truly is going to be desperate after child support and alimony hits his ass, but still maybe not desperate enough to sell to GEH.

“That’s possible,” Lorenz replies. I twist my lips.

“Any word on his daughter, Kate, these days?” I ask. The last I had heard of Kate was when she crashed Mia’s bridal shower.

“She’s been under the radar,” he replies. “You smellin’ something?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe not. Just see if you can scare her up. Use Alex if you have to.”

“Will do.”

So, Kavanaugh’s in the proverbial hot seat. Jesus, he’s older than I am—old enough to be my father—and still making babies… outside of his marriage, no less. Not that I condone infidelity of any kind, but if you’re going to stray outside of your marriage, why the hell wouldn’t you at least use a condom?

And Kate—is that why she showed up at Mia’s shower? Was she hoping to get back into the family’s good graces because she knew that Dad was headed down the tubes? And where is she now? She was aching for publicity a while back—why the silence? And where, pray tell, is the not-the-father baby? That kid just disappeared into thin air!

Now I really want to know what’s going on with the Kavanaughs. As I’m pondering what might be going on with Daddy Kavanaugh and his ice-queen daughter, I get a distressing text from my wife.

**Dealing with a crisis. I may be late. **

Harmony’s at our house, so what crisis is this?

**Something at the Center? **

I wait for a moment for a response to put my fears at ease.

**More personal. It’s not me, but still important. I can’t talk about it right now. **

You can’t drop an ominous fucking text on me and then tell me that you can’t talk about it.

**You know me better than that. **

I love you, Butterfly, but you know I can track your phone. As if she’s reading my mind, she replies:

**Keep your damn shirt on! I’m fine, but I can’t talk to you right now. I was just letting you know I’ll be late. Would you rather I not in the future? **

And that’s a threat.

**Sorry. See you when you get home. **

Now, I’m fucking dying to know what’s going on.

I stay a little later at the office finishing some things up since I know that Butterfly’s going to be late. While I’m trying to wrap up the days reports and some year-end tasks, my phone buzzes. I look at the display and it’s Dad.

“Ethan called today,” he says once I answer. “Says he wants to reimburse me for some of the expenses of the wedding.”

“He did?” I ask.

“You put him up to that, didn’t you?”

“Why would I put that man up to anything?” I ask. “The only thing I put him up to was giving me the guest list to his bachelor party so that I could vet those fuckers.”

“He just knew all the right things to say,” Dad accuses. “He sounded a lot like the conversations that you and I have.”

“He talked to me, yeah, but I didn’t put him up to shit. He’s a grown man. He came to me for advice and I gave it to him. There’s a difference, Dad…”

“Okay, okay, settle down,” Dad scolds, and it’s not until now that I realize my voice is rising and I sound defensive.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to raise my voice, but when you said that, it made it sound like I was being manipulative, and I wasn’t. He wants to contribute to the expenses of the wedding, and he didn’t know how to tell you. In fact, I want to contribute, too.”

“The wedding’s all paid for, son,” he says.

“I figured as much, Dad, but did you have to cash in yours and Mom’s retirement for that shindig?” I ask. He sighs.

“Christian, a month ago, I gave each of my brothers $750,000. Do you think I would have been able to do that if I had been strapped for cash?”

“I’m quite aware that you have a dime or three to rub together, Dad, but so does Ethan and he wants to contribute to this wedding.”

“He doesn’t need to contribute,” Dad says. “There’s nothing left to pay for.”

“That may be the case, but that tens of thousands of dollar bakery bill came to his house.”

“What?” Dad exclaims into the phone.

“Yeah,” I tell him. “And you should know that right before they got in their helicopter and left for the night, Ethan cornered me and Butterfly and lamented about the largess of those cakes—just the cakes! He had a few other things to say about the over-the-topness of the entire production, but the cakes had him in dismay, much like they did for me at first, and you know what I mean.”

“Yes, I know what you mean,” he cedes.

“Well, my fears were put to rest when I discovered that the food was going to the homeless and to shelters. His concerns were multiplied exponentially when he saw that bill—paid or not. It’s going to emasculate him if you don’t allow him to give you something on that wedding.”

“What about me?” Dad asks. “What about emasculating me? That’s my only daughter and I gave her the wedding she wanted. Isn’t that a father’s responsibility?”

“Yeah, Dad. And you did it. Everything was beautiful—though a bit crazy—and Mia loved it. You did good. Now, let Ethan give you something towards your expense. I’m aware that you don’t need it, but he needs to give it to you. That may be your only daughter, and having a daughter now I get it, but that’s his wife.” Dad sighs again.

Fine,” he relents, “but I’m not taking a damn dime from you. Got it?”

“Okay,” I give in. I can deal with that if it means that he’ll allow Ethan’s pride to remain intact by contributing to what I now know had to be more than a million-dollar wedding. I got married in a damn castle. Wayne Brady sang to my wife walking down the aisle. We rode away in a classic Bentley, had a shopping spree in Paris, and were supposed to stay abroad for a month and I can still guarantee that my sister’s nuptials cost more than mine.

“How did you end things with Ethan?” I ask.

“I told him that I would give some thought to his request and get back to him,” Dad says.

“God, Dad, that sounds so formal. He’s family now, you know…”

“Yes, I know, but I had to see what his intentions were when he was suggesting helping out with the financial portion of the wedding,” he says. I frown.

“Now, I’m not catching your drift… what do you mean by that?” I ask.

“I’m old-fashioned, son,” he says. “I think a father should pay for his daughter’s wedding unless she specifically asks him not to—like with you and Ana. You wanted something specific and you got what you wanted. I’m sure there was no hard feelings with Ray on that…”

“Right,” I concur, coaxing.

“Well, with two money families, I’m ashamed to say it, but I didn’t know if Ethan was trying to make the statement that he could pay for this wedding and was just throwing money at me like, ‘I got it, old man…’”

“Dad,” I interject scolding, “did he give you that impression?”

“That’s why I asked if you had spoken to him,” he says. “I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t being handled.”

“Jesus, Dad, you have to stop being so suspicious.”

“Says the man who will vet the pizza delivery guy if he can,” Dad retorts. Touché.

“Okay, okay, I get it. But still, the man married your daughter. If we really thought he was up to anything, it’s a bit late, now, isn’t it?”

“It’s never too late,” Dad says, “but you’re right. I should have given him the benefit of the doubt.”

We talk a little longer and I feel that I’ve killed enough time in the office trying not to worry about what’s happened in Butterfly’s day that’s going to cause her to be late. Should I go to the Center and check on her? Hell, no! We know how badly that turned out the last time. It’s not that I don’t trust her, but… no. Just, no.

My eye catches one more email as I’m about to shut down for the evening. It’s from Ted Friedson informing me that he received the Apollo and that it arrived in better condition than expected. Although he admits that it’s still pretty worn, it’s in pretty awesome shape for a 100-year-old piano. He promises to have it in tip-top condition in a few weeks. I take a little comfort in that and think about where in the house I’m going to put it as I pack away my laptop and head to the elevator.


ANASTASIA

If she’s afraid of this guy, he must have been talking a really good game,” Alex informs me when I speak to him on Monday. “He’s a small-time hood—drug dealer, never more than a street runner. He’s got no connections—none. The only people he has fled a drug bust, left him to take the rap, and haven’t been in contact with him since. I still can’t tell you why she’s moving from place to place, but I’ve got a good theory.

“She’s obviously a battered ex—there’s a little proof of that… questionable injuries and hospital visits with no police report filed, leaving against medical advice and things of that sort. For whatever reason her family is non-existent, she’s on her own and he knows it. He must’ve preyed on it while they were together, I’ve seen it before, but to have her so petrified that she’s moving from place to place…? He had his own delusions of grandeur, no doubt, but he must’ve fed them to her, leading her to believe that he has power that he doesn’t have. So, in her mind, a few months, a half year or so is a safe amount of time to stay put, then it’s time to move on.

“I can’t swear to it, but in my eyes, this is one of those ‘if it looks like a duck’ situations. If she’s as spooked as you say she is, she had a co-dependent relationship with him where he filled her head with stories, threats, and the usual ‘you’re nothing without me,’ and he’s just got her scared shitless and she’s not sure what to do. Unless he’s got some power that I haven’t seen, he’s nobody—just some punk who preyed on a weak young woman.”

“Well, this is really good news,” I tell him, “not that he preyed on her and has her so afraid, but that he’s not this big bad person that she thought he was. She’s got skills and education that I really want to put to some use, and now I can… if I can just convince her that this Ge guy isn’t a threat to her.”

“I don’t know how to tell you to do that,” he says. “You can tell her that our investigation shows that he still incarcerated and that there’s actually no way that he could find out where she is unless he has the type of resources that we have—which he doesn’t. Besides, we’re swimming in security. How the hell is he going to get to her?”

“She’s not with us 24/7, Alex,” I remind him. “I think the best thing right now is for me to keep it simple—just tell her that as far as we’re concerned, everything looks good and she’s got a job, and then extend the services of the Center to her if she feels that she needs sanctuary. Fear is a powerful thing and unfortunately, other people can’t make you not be afraid.”

Ebony is thrilled to learn that we’re willing to give her a shot to see how things work out. She insists on working in the daycare to get the feel of things and maybe venture out into some of the areas that I think she’ll be a better fit for.

“Right now, I’m just really desperate for a paycheck,” she admits. “My emergency fund is nearly gone, and I need to have income soon. I’d love to see where else I can go and what else I can do, but… let’s start off small, if you don’t mind.” I nod.

“Not a problem,” I tell her, “whatever makes you comfortable. Welcome aboard.” I proffer my hand to her and she shakes it, sighing heavily.

“Thank you,” she breathes, as if the weight of the world has been lifted off her shoulder. I summon Courtney to show her around and get her started as Marilyn took the day off today.

I’m very soon to find out why.

“Hello?” I answer my phone shortly after having a late lunch.

“Yes, is this… Anastasia Grey?” the female voice asks.

“It is. To whom am I speaking?”

“This is Sylvie Cooper. I’m calling from Seattle Women’s Services and Family Planning.” Okay, maybe this is something to do with the Center.

“Yes, Ms. Cooper, what can I do for you?”

“I’m calling because one of our patients has you listed as the emergency contact. She’s had an outpatient procedure performed and… she came alone. She shouldn’t be driving, so she asked us to call you.”

This is strange. Outpatient procedure, Seattle Women’s Serv… oh, shit.

“Who is the patient?” I ask, as if I didn’t already know.

“Marilyn Caldwell.”

*-*

Marilyn looks like hell when I get to the clinic. I’m sure she’s had an abortion. I’m only hoping that she and Gary talked about this before she did it. I have a sinking suspicion that either they didn’t or that he’s vehemently against it, because he’s not here with her.

“Hey,” I say to her downcast face. “You ready to go?” She nods without saying anything and allows me to lead her out of the clinic. The ride back to the apartment that she shares with Gary is mostly silent. I simply concentrate on getting her to where she needs to be. I won’t give her the third degree and I won’t badger…

“Don’t you want to ask what happened?” she says, breaking my inner coaching.

“Only if you want to tell me,” I reply after a pause, even though I can pretty much tell.

“I was eight and a half weeks pregnant,” she says. “I terminated the pregnancy.” I nod.

“Considering the facility, I figured as much,” I reply. It’s quiet for a few more moments.

“Gary wanted to keep it,” she says. “I tried to explain to him that I wasn’t ready to have a baby right now and I wasn’t going to be forced into the decision to have one. He totally stopped speaking to me.”

“Does he know that you were terminating the pregnancy?” I ask. She doesn’t respond. Did she tell him or not? What does she plan to do—just present herself to him and say, “Hey, baby’s gone?” I pull into the parking lot of their apartment complex and put the car in park.

“Will you come up with me?” she asks. Is she serious? What does she want me to do, stand between her and Gary while she tells him that she terminated the pregnancy? Gary wouldn’t hurt her… at least I think he wouldn’t hurt her. He loves her… but she’s about to tell him that he’s not going to be a father if he doesn’t already know. I sigh heavily and turn the car off.

“Let’s go,” I say.

The apartment is bone quiet when we get there. I figured it’s because Gary’s not here, but she goes to the back where the bedroom is, and I can hear her talking.

“What are you doing?” I hear her ask. There’s a long pause.

“I…” It’s Gary’s voice. “I need some time,” he says, and I hear shuffling. Oh, shit. Should I leave?

“What do you mean?” Marilyn squeaks.

“I can’t be here,” Gary says. “I need… I just can’t.”

“So, you’re just going to leave?” she accuses.

“You had to know this would happen!” Gary shoots. “You killed my baby! You had to know I wouldn’t stay! I couldn’t! I can’t even look at you right now!”

He is pissed! I don’t know how to react to this because it’s Marilyn’s body. She would have had to carry that child for nine months. If she and Gary broke up, most often, the man has the option to walk away faster than a woman—although in this case, I have a feeling Gary would have stuck around—but he’s right. It was his baby, too, and she aborted it. I hate seeing them in this position because there’s nothing I can do. There’s no right or wrong, but it’s all bad.

They scream at each other for another minute or two, and just as I’m deciding I should leave, I hear Marilyn begging him not to go and Gary telling her that she can have the apartment since she left hers to move in with him. The bedroom door opens to an angry Gary storming out with a duffle bag and the sound of Marilyn’s weeping, still begging him not to leave. When he raises his head and sees me, he stops in his tracks and glares at me.

“Did you take her there?” he seethes. I’ve never seen him this angry in my life. I’m frozen for a moment, but then I shake my head.

“No,” I say, finally finding my words. “She… drove herself. The clinic called and asked me to pick her up. I couldn’t just leave her.” I don’t tell him that had she asked me to go with her, I would have gone. Although the thought of terminating my own pregnancy never crossed my mind, I agree with a woman’s right to choose.

His eyes soften, and I can see that he’s been crying, most likely for more than one reason. His lips form a thin line.

“Take care of her,” he chokes angrily. “She’s gonna need you.”

“Gary…”

He storms past me without another word and out the door, slamming it behind him. Marilyn hasn’t emerged from the room yet, so I approach with caution. When I breach the doorway, I see her crumpled on the ground weeping.

He left her like this?

I go over to her and kneel on the floor next to her. Her cries are so mournful, like someone cut off one of her limbs. She sounds like Luma when she was mourning the death of her son-in-law. I put my hand on her arms, and she starts to wail. She knows that my being there means that Gary is gone, and you can hear her anguish sinking all the way down to her feet. I just sit there with her, and let her wail…

I’m wrung down to my soul when I get home that night. It’s well after midnight and I’m so emotionally drained that I just go to the kitchen and sit at the breakfast bar. The house is dark, and I lay my head on my arms on the countertop. I have such an unreal headache that it feels like my brain is going to explode out of my head.

I’m not startled, nor do I raise my head when the lights in the kitchen come on. It’s tomorrow—of course, he’ll be waiting up and expecting to know where I’ve been. I don’t say anything as I feel rather than hear him cross the span of the kitchen in his bare feet.

“Do you want something to drink?” he asks, his voice controlled as he opens the refrigerator.

“Vodka,” I say from under my arms. I hear movement stop, then the cupboard open. I know he’s mad—or at least not pleased with me for coming home this late, and I don’t have the strength to justify my tardiness, for lack of a better word.

“Baby, what’s wrong?” he says, and I can feel him stroking my hair. I raise weary eyes to him wondering what I should and shouldn’t tell him. His eyes change, and he rubs my forearm.

“Tell me what’s wrong, Butterfly,” he says, his voice heavy with concern. Fuck it, I can’t carry this shit.

“I just put Marilyn on a plane to Spokane,” I tell him while worrying my horribly throbbing scar. “She’s going to spend some time with her parents, I don’t know for how long.” He raises his brow.

“You can’t be this upset about Marilyn taking a vacation,” he says.

“You’re right, I’m not… and it’s not a vacation.” He places a tumbler in front of me with a shot of vodka in it. I throw it back immediately and gesture for another. He fills it to a double-shot this time and I throw that back just as quickly.

“She’s escaping,” I say, after the double-shot burns its way down my chest. “She was pregnant.” His eyes sharpen.

“Okay, wait. I’m confused. She’s escaping because she’s pregnant?” he asks. “Is Garrett pissed? Did he threaten her?” I gesture to my glass again and he fills it with another double-shot. I just take a sip this time.

“No, yes, and no,” I reply, answering his questions as I replace the glass on the counter. “I’m telling you more than I should, but I wasn’t acting in a medical capacity today, so…” I take a deep breath. “No, she’s not escaping because she’s pregnant as she is no longer pregnant. She had a termination today. Yes, Gary is extremely pissed. He wanted this and one of the first things I heard him say when we got back to the apartment is, ‘You killed my baby.’ And no, he didn’t threaten her, but he did leave her and from the looks of it, he ain’t comin’ back.” I take another swallow of my drink.

“Oh, God,” he says, his brow furrowed, “that’s fucked up all around.”

“Tell me about it,” I lament, rubbing my forehead for the first time in forever. I have no idea what to do. Gary and Marilyn are both my friends and Marilyn’s my employee. They’ve both talked to me about how they felt about this situation and I’ve done the best that I can to give them both objective opinions without betraying the trust of the other. I can’t take sides, but I may be forced to, depending on how this plays out.

“I can only imagine what it must feel like being caught in the middle of this,” he says sympathetically.

“It was awful, Christian,” I bemoan. “Gary was so hurt, and Marilyn was devastated. I don’t know what to do. Her parents are in Spokane and with Thanksgiving coming up, she couldn’t stand to stay in that apartment alone. So, I helped her pack some things and she was on the redeye across the state.”

“So, no one’s in the apartment now?” he asks. I shake my head.

“I tried to call Gary, but he’s not answering. He probably thinks I’m going to ream him a new one for leaving Mare, but he has a right to his feelings, too.”

“So… any idea what now?” he asks. “I mean, whose apartment is it?”

“It’s Gary’s. He paid the lease for a year and near as I can tell, the only way out of it is to sublet or have someone buy out the lease. She gave up her apartment to move in with him, so he left and said she could stay. That makes me think that he might come back, because he only took a duffel bag, but…” I shrug and rub my head again, then my scar.

“Jesus Christ, what a mess,” he says as he retrieves another tumbler and fills it with ice and water from the refrigerator door.

“I can’t even fathom what to say to either of them right now. I can’t villainize either of them because they both have a right to feel what they’re feeling. What do you think?” My husband raises a brow and twist his lips before he places the tumbler of water in front of me. Yeah, I know—two double-shots and a single. Chug, chug.

“I can’t answer that question, Butterfly,” he says. “For obvious reasons, I avoid this particular topic of conversation at all costs.” I raise my eyes to his.

“What if it had been us?” I ask.

“But it wasn’t,” he says.

“But what if it had?” I press. He leans forward and takes my hands in his, then kisses both sets of knuckles before looking me in the eye.

“At all. Costs,” he repeats, letting me know that no matter how I press, we won’t be having this discussion. I sigh and drop my head.

“Dear, God, help me,” I groan. This can only get worse before it gets any better.

*-*

I receive a text from Marilyn when she lands in Spokane, then she—like Gary—falls into radio silence. Only two days without her this week and I feel as if I’m falling into oblivion. My calendar looks like hieroglyphics and when I suggested nabbing Luma again, Christian informed me that she had just returned to town herself and was needed at Grey House. No matter—Thanksgiving is here, and I plan to relax with my family for the next few days.

Harmony was not keen on coming to Thanksgiving dinner with our family, but Courtney and Vickie invited her to the condo and she gladly accepted—nothing as formal as a family gathering, but still with people she likes to be around… and she’s not alone on the first Thanksgiving without her mom.

I try to reach Marilyn and Gary on Thanksgiving, but neither of them answers or responds to my texts. I decide to leave them alone until and if they reach out to me.

Chuck reminds me that he and Keri will be going back to South Dakota for his and his mother’s case against his brother. I can’t believe he’s actually going to sue his brother. I mean, I can believe it… the bastard deserves it, but I guess I just can’t believe that it’s really happening.

Thanksgiving—a time of giving thanks, being around family, watching football and eating way too much food. Yet, all around me, I see sorrow and heartbreak and disappointment… people just trying to cope…

Harmony just buried her mother and her siblings are conspiring against her and treating her like the enemy.

Marilyn terminated her pregnancy and is now mourning the loss of the man that she loves.

Gary is mourning the loss of a baby and the dashed hopes of having a family.

No doubt, Carrick and his brothers are feeling the loss of their father right now. Even though Burt passed away months ago, going through the family heirlooms must have opened some of those old wounds, and like Harmony, they’re spending their first Thanksgiving without him.

And Freeman’s family—Lanie may feel no love lost, but Burtie and Nell loved that man and are no doubt having their own regrets today about the total breakdown of the family.

And of course, Chuck and his mom—having to sue his hateful brother for keeping the family apart with his lies.

And here I sit, journaling before I go to Val and Elliot’s for Thanksgiving, once again nothing on the pages about myself—just everyone else and their problems.

Thanksgiving… yeah.

*-*

“We’re not going to have a repeat of you two acting like children and Christian catching the plague, are we?” Val says when she opens the door.

“No,” I promise her, “we’re fine and we’re not bickering about the… sunshine yellow stucco!” I say with too much enthusiasm.

“Butterfly…” my husband scolds, coming in behind me and carrying our overnight bags.

“Yes, dear,” I say sweetly and obediently. He leans over and kisses me while Val and Elliot’s usual staff takes the bags from Christian.

“Are they permanent?” I ask, noting the same woman in the kitchen that was here for the housewarming.

“No, we just asked for them back,” she says, hooking her arm into mine. “Come sit with me in the living room.”

Val is positively giddy having the family over for Thanksgiving, much giddier than she was at her housewarming. Elliot sees to everyone getting their things settled in their various rooms before we all sit down for our various fall-spiced beverages.

Christian is dead set and determined to make sure that I don’t feel the ostracization that I experienced at the housewarming. He’s all snuggly with me and we’re playing with the babies in front of the fireplace. Val and Elliot already have their Christmas tree trimmed, so all of the babies—including my little brother Harry—are spellbound by the sparkling lights.

Sophia is playing with Mariah and Celida—more like keeping them occupied while her father and stepmother watches over them all. Herman, Grace, Carrick, and Luma all seem to be having a very interesting conversation of some sort. Val is bending Mandy’s ear about something while Mia and Ethan listen attentively, and Elliot and Daddy are probably talking shop. Just as I’m taking in my surroundings, I see Harry with Mikey, and they appear to be having a conversation. I watch them more closely and see Harry pulling Mikey’s arms. Is he…?

“Phone… phone…” I say, trying to be as calm as I can. Nobody’s listening to me, so I reach for Christian, who is cooing at his daughter, and tug on his pants. He raises his eyes to me and follows my gaze to my brother and my son.

“Son of a gun!” he says, fumbling in his pocket and finding his phone. People start looking to see what the commotion is, and before we know it, at least four phones are recording now.

Harry appears to be giving Mikey instructions in whatever gobbledygook he’s speaking, and Mikey follows instruction by grabbing both of his uncle’s arms with his grubby little hands. Harry’s unsteady little gait pulls Mikey forward until he’s standing, but Harry can’t comprehend why Mikey doesn’t start walking immediately after he stands. As a result, Harry pulls him forward again and Mikey stands only for a moment before tumbling over onto his little hands.

Harry’s getting a little frustrated with Mikey’s lack of pedestrian progress, but this entire thing is just a game to Mikey who, after each tumble, breaks into fits of baby giggles. Being on the same mental wavelength, his sister breaks into giggles as well and, let’s face it—who can’t laugh after hearing an infectious baby giggle? Soon, there’s an entire room of giggling adults and children, and the whole thing has been caught on video.

“Wow, what did we miss?”

I turn around to see Marcia and Maggie walking into the dining room from the vestibule. Maggie is getting so big. I remember when she just disappeared behind her mom.

“Hi, Marcia,” I say, rising from my seat on the floor. “It’s good to see you.” I hug her and compliment her on how good she’s looking these days while Maggie joins the other girls in the dining room. “Where’s Marlow?” I ask. I catch Sophie perk up in my peripheral vision.

“Oh, he’s here. They should be in shortly.” They? Who’s they? Did Marcia finally decide to bring her “plus-one” along? I find out shortly that there’s definitely a “plus-one,” but it’s not Marcia’s “plus-one.”

“Hi everybody,” Marlow greets as he enters the foyer. Behind him—and attached to his hand—is a tiny girl who looks a bit like a pre-teen. I try not to stare, but what’s more, I can feel Sophie glaring at them from behind me. I plaster a smile on my face and walk over to them.

“Hi, Marlow,” I say, kissing him on the cheek. “Who’s this?”

“This is Britney,” he says, pulling the girl closer so that she’s not lagging behind him. “She’s a sophomore at my school.”

Well, thanks for telling me that! The child doesn’t look more than twelve! Seriously, I’m petite, but she’s… thin, like really thin… like “Calista-Flockhart-when-everybody-thought-she-was-anorexic” thin, only thinner.

“Britney, this is Anastasia Grey. I told you about my mentor, Christian. This is his wife.” Britney smiles a smile that looks bigger than her face.

“It’s nice to meet you, Mrs. Grey,” she says politely.

“It’s nice to meet you, too, Britney,” I reply with a smile. “Come on in and meet everyone…”

Britney is quite affable as Marlow introduces her around, and everyone returns her warm greeting—everyone, that is, except Sophie. Sophie’s polite, but cool, and either Britney doesn’t notice it, or she ignores it. Two points for Britney…

As the day moves along, things seem to be going okay. Sophie doesn’t appear to be sneering at Marlow’s date, but she also seems careful to keep her distance. Being shunned by one of Marlow’s dates was probably enough for her.

I’ll have to remember in the future that my children have graduated to cereals, baby food, and some solid foods along with my breastmilk, which means that we may need some form of portable high chairs for them. Otherwise, we’ll be stuck with them in our laps while we try to eat… like now. Gail helps out, of course, and Val is eager to get her hands on her niece and nephew, so they allow me and Christian some time to eat.

Once we move on to dessert, the twins have eaten and have had their bottles and are on their way to sleep in their playpens when Herman stands to his feet.

“I’d like to have everyone’s attention please,” he says, and the room falls silent. Herman takes a deep breath.

“This has been a pretty eventful year for the Grey family,” he begins. “We lost our dad… effectively lost a brother…” He and Carrick exchange looks before he continues. “But we’ve grown. We’ve been blessed with a son and a daughter—in my case, a niece and a nephew—Ethan and Valerie. And even though we were already graced with Ana, we were able to add Mackenzie and Michael to village.”

We laugh at his expression, but truthfully, that’s exactly what we are.

“But in my loss, and in our flourishing, God has blessed me with those two sweet little girls right there…” He gestures to Mariah and Celida, who both smile fondly at him, “… and this loving and beautiful woman right here.” He turns to his side and takes Luma’s hand. Pulling her to her feet, he kisses her fingers softly and gives her a loving smile, which she returns.

“I don’t know where I would have been without her,” he says, still gazing into her eyes, “if I would have made it without her. Taking care of Dad’s things and going through his and Mom’s memories, it was like he was talking to me, telling me to live, telling me to grab life by the horns and live! And I realized then that I couldn’t be without this woman—that my mom and dad had a wonderful, beautiful life while they had each other and now, they have it again. I realized that I screwed up big the first time, but God is giving me a second chance… and dammit, I’m taking it.” He’s gazing into Luma’s eyes and I’m only too certain—as I’m sure the rest of us are—that he’s about to propose.

“So,” he turns back to the inquiring eyes, “I’m proud to announce that on November 22, 2014 at 3:17pm, this beautiful goddess officially became Mrs. Herman Grey.”

“Get outta here!” Carrick rises to his feet. “You sly dog! I shoulda known!” He gives his brother’s hand a vigorous shake as he claps him on the back. “Congratulations! Congratulations, man! I shoulda known you were up to something!”

Grace hugs Luma warmly and Mia follows. Warm smiles and congratulations fill the table.

“Not to fret, ladies,” Herman says once the revelry is calming a bit, “you can do your planning and parties and whatever it is that ladies do for weddings and such if my Luma says that’s what she wants. I just couldn’t wait to make her mine.”

There’s a collective swooning coo from the ladies at the table. Luma shows us pictures on their phones of Herman in a suit her in a beautiful vintage wedding dress. She looks twenty years younger.

“Is that…” Carrick looks at the picture again. “Is that… Mom’s dress?” he asks. Herman nods.

“Yeah,” he says, after a pause, “and… one of Mom’s rings,” he says. Carrick looks over at Luma who looks like she wants to hide her hand, but it’s too late.

Carrick looks at the picture again and his eyes clearly moisten. He takes Luma’s hand with the ring on it and kisses it gently before kissing Luma just as gently on the cheek.

“You made a beautiful bride,” he says, his voice cracking slightly. “I wish I could have been there.”

Luma smiles widely and Grace puts her hands on Luma’s shoulders. The cooing begins anew as Luma recounts the story of their nuptials—sweet and romantic. Elliot cuddles Valerie in his arms and she beams as the family enjoy themselves around the table. Once the conversation—and cooing—falls to a gently roar, Elliot stands to his feet.

“I’d like to say something, too,” he says. Val raises a brow and a small smile at him.

“I want to thank you all for agreeing to have Thanksgiving at my house, even though my house is the smallest of them all at the moment.” There’s a laugh following his statement. “But I’m really, really grateful for you all being here because… well, as you all know, my wife is a brain cancer survivor. For those of you who didn’t know already, she named her tumor Meg. It’s a long story but just know that she named it Meg. Well, she’s been suffering from these random dizzy spells, and even though my wife is strong, I could see it in her eyes that she was concerned that Meg was making another appearance.”

The room falls completely silent, even more quiet than when Herman asked for our attention.

“I did my best not to panic… I wasn’t very good,” he says, his voice cracking. Val takes his hand and gives it a squeeze. “But we didn’t dawdle. We went to the doctor and they proceeded to run the regular tests. I’m happy to say that Meg is definitely not making another appearance.”

The room is filled with sighs of relief and thanks to God and such, but Elliot’s not finished.

“We did learn however,” he looks down at Val, “that my angel is having a baby.”

“Get the fuck outta here!” My husband springs to his feet and reaches right across the table to his brother. “You’re going to be the goofiest dad ever!” he says, shaking Elliot’s hand.

“That’s the plan,” he says before turning to Herman. “Sorry, Uncle Herman.”

“Don’t worry about it, son,” he says, shaking Elliot’s hand as well. “There’s plenty of joy and happiness to go around.”

Most of us have forgotten our food and are clustered around either the newly-married couple or the newly-expecting couple cooing over the antique ring that Herman gave Luma or the fact that Val will be having a baby soon. Herman presented his bride with a 13.93ctw smoky-quartz ring set in 14kt yellow gold with leaf accents—another piece from his mother’s priceless collection. Elliot hasn’t presented Val with anything—besides a house, but he indicates that he plans to repurpose one of the rooms into a nursery that would rival ours.

With the attention centered on Val, Elliot, Herman, and Luma, no one sees the small commotion taking place in the corner of the living room. I inconspicuously examine Britney having a harsh word or two in hushed tones with Marlow before she ceremoniously turns away from him and proceeds towards the front door. Marlow rolls his eyes, then throws a glance at Sophie before following his date outside. They still haven’t garnered the attention of anyone else in the house, but I watch as Sophie twists her lips, rolls her eyes, then falls petulantly on the sofa, folding her arms and staring at the fire.

And here we go again.

I wait for a moment before I sneak away from the crowd and go to the foyer. I locate my coat and gloves and step outside in search of Marlow. He’s pacing on the pavement in front of the house like he’s trying to control his temper.

“Marlow?” I call out to him. He whirls around in my direction and upon spotting me, visibly tries to control his ire. “What’s wrong?” I ask as I approach.

“Forgive me for my lack of consideration,” he says in a voice that I’ve never heard before, “but is Sophia Taylor on the rag again?”

Oookay. There will be no scolding of Marlow Johnson today. He. Is. Livid.

“Um… okay, what happened?” I ask cautiously.

“She was awful to my date!” Marlow says, perturbed. “For no good damn reason, she was awful!” He sits down on the retainer wall. Oh, dear.

“In what way?” I ask, sitting down next to him.

“She said some flighty crap about her being skinny… something about needing a gravy sandwich or something like that.” I raise my eyebrows to him.

“Um… well… um… that’s not… horrible,” I try to excuse.

“My date heard her!” he snaps. I cringe.

“Ooo, that’s bad,” I retract. “Any idea why she said that?”

“Because she’s a brat!” he retorts, very angry about his seemingly ruined Thanksgiving. I try to come up with an explanation. I know she has a crush on him even though she hasn’t told me. This lashing out at his dates isn’t going to stop if he keeps bringing them around. Which reminds me…

“It could be attack as a form of defense,” I tell him. He raises a brow at me. “Have you forgotten the little twat who chased her away from Mia’s wedding? What was her name—Maya?”

“Maya didn’t chase her away!” He frowns.

“She most certainly did!” I retort. “That crack about her kid sister having Sophie’s dress; and then that whole ‘I’ll just have to take it off’ thing, as if everybody at the table didn’t know what the hell that meant. Sophie had just spent the entire dinner impressing a table full of adults with her cuisine expertise and here comes this insecure little twit acting like a jealous toddler and cutting her down in front of everybody. If Sophie acts like a brat in front of your dates, blame your first date—or at least the one that you brought to the wedding. That’s why I told you to talk to your women about how they act around us. And what happened to Maya anyway? It wasn’t two months ago, she was hanging all over you!”

“Um…” He rubs the back of his neck. “Yeah, well, she wasn’t really comfortable after the incident either.”

“Um-hmm,” I say, folding my arms. “I bet she wasn’t. I’m not trying to sabotage your dates, but I won’t stand by while they treat someone I love like crap. I’m really sorry about Britney. I’m sure she didn’t deserve what happened, but when it comes to your girls, Sophie may be lashing out before they get the chance to lash out at her. And don’t be surprised if she’s got an entire armory ready. You might want to try and talk to her, get her to understand how her actions are affecting you—and I’m not saying this happened with Britney, but make sure your dates aren’t doing anything to antagonize her. She’s only 13, for Christ’s sake. You, her, and Maggie are the only teenagers we have at family gatherings, so…” I trail off and shrug.

“I may just have to stop bringing dates around altogether,” he laments. “Jeez, at this rate, I may never get laid again,” he adds, his voice low.

I don’t think I was supposed to hear that last part, so I just ignore it.

“Well, I don’t want you to feel like your dates aren’t welcome. You’re always welcome to bring them to family gatherings… as long as they know how to behave themselves, but Maya laid the groundwork for how Sophie’s going to act around your women, so you really need to talk to her.”

She’s got a crush on you, you idiot. Are you truly that dense? Smooth things over and let her know that you at least care about her feelings, even though it can never go any further.

Of course, telling her that he knows would just humiliate her to no end. So, of course, I can’t share my theory with him, but geez… it’s as plain as the nose on my face.

“I think I’m just going to take off,” he says, “try to smooth things over with Britney…”

“But not with Sophie?” I chastise.

“She’s the one who insulted Britney!” Marlow retorts.

“And I just told you why!” I counter. “You don’t think that needs addressing?”

“If I address that with her right now, Ana, I’m going to be pissed. I don’t even know where Britney is. I need to go find her. I’ll talk to Sophia some other time.” He stands. “Tell my mom to text me when she’s ready to go if I’m not back by then.” He marches down the driveway towards his car.

That’s right, Marlow. Run away.

It’s hard to remember that he’s still a child… but not. He’s 17, so his life should be shaping into manhood now, but he disappoints me when it comes down to how he’s handling the complexities of relationships right now. I guess this is when he’s learning.

And poor Sophie. She’s acting like the stereotypical catty jealous spurned female, but at 13, she’s coming off as the bratty ass little sister. Their age difference is wide enough that they most likely will never have any romantic relationship—not to mention the fact that Marlow simply does not see her that way—but at this rate, she’ll not only destroy any hint of a chance of a romance. She’ll also destroy their friendship.


A/N: Pictures of places, cars, fashion, etc., can be found at https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/raising-grey/

The new question and answer thread is always open for questions about the story. be sure to read it and please adhere to the rules when asking questions. You can find it on the left, second from last in the menu our you can click HERE.

There has been yet another development where if you feel the need to talk to fellow readers about personal issues, you need a sounding board, you want to vent about something in your life, please feel free to visit the link on the left in the menu entitled “Do You Need To Talk.” No subject is taboo. I just ask that you approach the link with respect for those who have concerns as well as those who respond. You can also get to the link by clicking HERE

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 ~~love and handcuffs

 

Raising Grey: Chapter 65—The Glue That Holds Family Together

Please say a prayer for my friend Yanique. She lost her mom recently after a long and diligent struggle with her health. Send her positive vibes, love, and light. I know that is a very rough time for her.

Tiny little chat here…

My last post was November 30—that was 16 days ago. In that time, I’ve gotten about 35 or so emails and messages that were not automated. Only one of them asked, “Are you okay?” There were other emails and comments (two or three) that had the tone, “How are you doing? How are things going?” I have seen them. Forgive me if I haven’t responded yet.  

The rest of them were all, “Where’s the next chapter?” “When are you going to post the next chapter?” “Why are you making us wait so long for a chapter?” One such comment was immediately after the last chapter was posted. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate on how that made me feel.

I’ve probably said this 99 times, and I’ll probably say it 99 more until and if I ever decide to just stop writing. I appreciate that people are so invested in my stories more than you all know, but please stop treating me like “just the next chapter.” I’m well aware that not everybody does that, so you all know that I’m not talking to everyone—but those of you who do, you know who you are. For the record, when you do that, it just causes me to lose my motivation and I wait longer to post.

I may come in on a Tuesday night and say, “Hey, I’ve got a little energy. Let me edit a chapter,” then wake up on Wednesday morning, do my tags, upload it, make my links, and get it posted before I start working. If, however, I come in to “Hurry up with the chapter,” I’ll just go do something else. I don’t want anybody to feel like they can say, “Chop, chop! Give us a chapter,” and I’m going to “chop chop.” It has the opposite effect—it slows me right down. Please don’t “out” yourself by saying, “I didn’t mean it that way” because please don’t be offended, but I’m not going to respond if you do. You’re just going to be “outing” yourself. Just put a pin in this and realize that this is how it makes me feel.

So, for those who asked, yes, I’m okay. I’m doing fine, thank you so much for asking. All is well. I’ve been very busy and I’m dealing with a little seasonal depression, but the winter solstice is five days away and then it’s only up from there, so that’s a good thing. Working from home has been fabulous, my beloved Falala, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I had to go into the office for a day last week and I’ll have to go in a few days in the future, but for the most part, I love, love, love being at home.

Now, here’s the next chapter. Each subsequent chapter will be posted as time and opportunity—and motivation—allows. Thank you for your continued support.

This is a work of creativity. As such, you may see words, concepts, scenes, actions, behaviors, pictures, implements, and people that may or may not be socially acceptable and/or offensive. If you are sensitive to adverse and alternative subject matter of any kind, please do not proceed, because I guarantee you’ll find it here. You have been warned. Read at your own risk.

I do not own Fifty Shades Trilogy, or the characters. They belong to E. L. James. I am only exercising my right to exploit, abuse, and mangle the characters to MY discretion in MY story in MY interpretation as a fan. If something that I say displeases you, please, just leave. If you don’t like this story or me, please don’t spoil this experience for everyone. Just go away. For the rest of you, the saga continues…

Chapter 65—The Glue That Holds The Family Together

CHRISTIAN

“Dad had a T-Bird? A fucking ’64 T-Bird? And you gave it to Burt?” Freeman roars through the phone.

Mom gave me the “all clear” this morning, so I came over to Dad’s house to meet with Uncle Herman and see how much of the items from the storage units had been shipped to family. Smalls located the model car collection that was willed to Dad and warned that he would need more than a display case for it before he shipped it out on Monday. Apparently, Dad already knew that and has had Elliot working on redoing another whole room in the house to prepare for their arrival. Another whole room… I have got to see this collection.

Other various items are making their way to different parts of the country. Herman wanted Grandma Ruby’s Waterford crystal and her wedding dress since no one laid claim to them. He said that the younger family members couldn’t see the value in the crystal and that grandma’s wedding dress just sitting in a storage facility somewhere didn’t seem right to him. So, those things are on the way to Washington along with Dad’s model car collection, and my Apollo will be shipped to a restorer on the east coast.

Lanie sent me a picture of Burtie smiling brightly and posing with his boyfriend—Leo’s cousin—next to his new, incredibly pimped out 1964 T-Bird with the ocean in the background. These are apparently Burtie’s engagement photos as he and his new love plan to tie the knot after Burtie’s surgeries. He insisted on waiting because he doesn’t want his scars to be in the wedding pictures.

Word got to Freeman because Lanie posted the pictures on social media. So, either Freeman’s trolling her page, or someone told him about it, and now he’s on Uncle Herman’s speaker phone stomping like Rumpelstiltskin.

“No, Freeman,” Uncle Herman says calmly. “I had a fucking ’64 T-Bird and I gave it to Burt.”

“That was Dad’s car! I’m his son, too, and you can’t pretend I don’t exist no matter how much you want to. As his son, I’m entitled to his possessions just like you are, and I want my share of that stuff!” Freeman demands. A satisfied look comes over Herman’s face.

“Didn’t you hear what Wu said at the reading?” Uncle Herman says. “Dad left all of this stuff to me to distribute as I see fit. You don’t have a share.”

He left you whatever was in that safe deposit box, not what he had in storage!”

“And the key and the instructions to the storage bin were in the safe deposit box. So, dear brother, that means that all that stuff belongs to me, too. Is that why you tried to keep me from the reading of the will? Because you knew that Dad left the disposition of his estate to me? Is that why you wanted to get him back to Detroit before he died—so that you could coerce him to change trustees? Maybe give you power of attorney so you could sell his house before he even died? You tried to screw me and Rick and it backfired on you. How does that feel?”

“You’re just as paranoid as he is,” Freeman shoots. “You can’t prove I did anything!”

“I don’t have to,” Uncle Herman replies. “It still backfired. You lied and you schemed and you went behind our backs and it backfired—in an even bigger way than you think because you’re even cheating yourself out of $500,000 that belongs to you because you’re too busy trying to hurt somebody else. Rick doesn’t need that money, and he proved it to you by giving me and Stan $750,000 each while you watched! Then he told us that we could keep whatever is left of our share when you’re done with your shenanigans. Who’s being hurt here, because it’s certainly not any of us!”

“You’re not going to get away with this, Herman…” Freeman begins.

“Stop right there,” Uncle Herman interrupts. “Before you start getting one of your stupid, dark ideas, don’t forget—if you protest the will, you lose your rights to everything, including that dilapidated house you inherited.” Freeman is silent for several moments.

“The joke’s going to be on you,” he says, finally. “I’m selling this house, and I’m using the money to rebuild Dad’s, and when I’m done, it’s going to be worth far more than those trinkets you all are playing with!”

“Trinkets!” Uncle Herman laughs. “That trinket that I gave your son has been rebuilt, refurbished and it’s currently worth nearly $100,000. How’s that for a trinket?”

Freeman is silent again.

“And you’re selling your house—a perfectly good house with a very high market value so that you can try to repair a money pit in the middle of Detroit where the market values are dropping and the joke’s on us? Didn’t you buy that house while you and Nell were married? That makes it community property. What does she say about that?”

“She moved out. She has no claim to this house anymore!” Not that simple, Freem. “Besides, I’m signing the divorce papers. I’m giving that witch what she wants and getting her out of my hair once and for all.”

“You mean that witch that bore your children and dealt with your bullshit for more than twenty years? Is that the witch you’re speaking of?” Herman retorts.

“They’re all dead to me!” he snaps. “Burt’s pressing charges on me for a little tough love and his pathetic, weak mother is falling in step right behind him. And Nollie—or whatever the fuck her name is now—yeah, it can easily be said that she’s to blame for this entire fucking fiasco!”

“Kind of like Rick has been the root of all evil for all of your problems, but never you, right, Freem?

“You were never to blame for smashing Burt’s face in the middle of a crowded airport.

“You were never to blame for alienating the entire family from Rick because you were pissed that he married a rich woman.

“You were never to blame for cheating on your faithful wife who stuck with you through all of your bullshit and garbage until she just couldn’t take it anymore.

“You were never to blame for treating your daughter like the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in your life from the day she was born!

“You were never to blame for making Dad feel like a burden from the day he got sick and couldn’t take care of himself anymore. A week before he died, he pretty much called you a selfish bastard, and he repeated those words from the grave in his will. His final thought for you was that he knew that he never meant anything to you, that you were pretty much waiting for him to die so that you could get that house and you didn’t feel a bit of conviction about it.

“You’re rotten through and through, Freeman, and you don’t have the conscience to feel bad about it. You’re going to die old, lonely, and miserable, and you’re not entitled to a goddamn thing but that house that you got. There’s no hope for you! I wash my hands of you! So, go rebuild your money pit and leave us the fuck alone. Don’t call me again!” Uncle Herman swipes the screen and ends the call and sighs heavily.

“I want to feel bad about it, but I don’t,” Uncle Herman says to me and Dad. “There’s really no hope for him! That man is like Satan, walking through the earth and ‘seeking whom he may devour.’”

“He’s adamant about that house,” Dad says. “He’s an unfeeling, delusional asshole, but he’s not an idiot. You all stayed in Detroit and the surrounding areas all these years. Before you and Dad moved out here, you were there. It’s no secret that Detroit is deteriorating. Schools are closing, families are leaving, neighborhoods are falling to ruin… he has to know that house is worthless! So, what is it? What’s so important?”

“He thought all Dad had was that house. Hell, we all thought all Dad had was that house! He was just the only one who was willing to risk everything to get it—including Dad!”

“There’s got to be something else more important about that house,” Dad says. “It can’t just be sentimental value.”

“He thinks it’s worth something,” I say with a shrug. “Maybe there’s gold in the basement.”

“Well, I hope he finds it,” Uncle Herman says waving his hands. “Jesus, I don’t want to hear from him ever again. I can’t take this anymore.”

“We may have a bigger problem, Uncle Herman,” I say. “He’ll more than likely head down to the storage units and cause some trouble. You might want to call the management office and give them a heads up. I’m going to call my guy and have him ship everything that’s been claimed to those members of the family who claimed it and ship everything else here. We need to wrap this up and everything needs to be on the road no later than Friday. That’s still two days and enough time for him to wreak havoc.”

“Over my dead body,” Uncle Herman says while dialing a number on his phone. I also pull out my cell phone. I call Smalls and explain what’s going on and what needs to be done. That operation needs to be shut down and on the move from Detroit to Seattle in two days.

“That’s impossible, sir,” Smalls declares. “We don’t have the resources here to ship this stuff across the country in two days. It took longer than that just to get a company to secure those cars. And it took even longer to get them prepared to be shipped to you. The way that it was packed in these facilities, it was packed to be stored—not to be shipped. That’s going to take time and care unless you want these things to be damaged when they arrive, and do you want anybody but Grey Shipping to transport these items? Antique furniture? Fragile glassware? Keepsakes? Quite candidly, sir, I don’t want to be held responsible for a botched-up job and you and your family receiving a bunch of pretty pieces of things that obviously have some pretty significant sentimental value.” I sigh heavily.

“Well, what do you suggest, Smalls?” I say, almost through my teeth.

“Well, Mr. Grey, shipping these things piece by piece isn’t a really difficult task, but shipping fragile and valuable items all in bulk, that’s a little out of my realm. I know it’ll take time, but I’d need to consult the experts on the best way to proceed.” I roll my eyes. Was I naïve for thinking that he would do that in the first place?

The truth is that shipping the items quickly isn’t necessarily the priority. Keeping Freeman away from the items is what’s most important. I put Smalls on hold and conference Alex into the call.

“Welch, I have Smalls on the line, the team leader over the project in Detroit. Smalls, how many units do we have out there again?”

Four,” he replies.

“Welch, my uncle in Detroit has gotten wind that my grandfather’s things are being divvied out to the family and he has made it clear that he ‘wants his share.’ We both know that he’s an unreasonable, delusional hothead and very unpredictable. I think you can see where I’m going with this.”

“Yes, sir,” Alex replies.

“So, we need to get a detail out there—something like five guys that can work shifts, more at night than during the daytime. The management team has already been informed that Freeman is to have no access to the units, so that pretty much takes care of business hours even though I would want at least one guy out there during the day just to keep the peace and allow the team to do their job…”

Hm,” Alex says into the phone. Hm? What’s the hm?

“Something I’m missing, Mr. Welch?” I ask.

“Well, no, sir. It’s just that the team is on a few different projects right now, including securing the Franklin mansion. We’re just spread kind of thin at the moment.”

I’m not hearing that. Did I just hear that? Did I just hear my head of security tell me that we don’t have the staff to do something that I need done? I have a large force of elite motherfuckers that rivals the CIA. In fact, some of them came from the CIA—and this fucker is insinuating that I don’t have the security staff to do what I need? We had a guy just sitting at Pops’ house while I was on my honeymoon! I own several security companies! And this fucker is telling me that the staff is “spread kind of thin” right after this other fucker is complaining about shipping four storage units—and not even four anymore—full of stuff from Detroit to Seattle when I control shipping modes on land, at sea, and in the air?

Has married life made me a pussy… or just made me look like one?

“Mr. Grey?” My pondering has caused me to fall silent.

“Okay, so here’s the thing,” I say, rubbing my brow and trying to keep my anger in check. “I am a fucking billionaire, so I’m not very accustomed to the word ‘no.’ Today, I have effectively heard it twice from two different people in my employ…”

“I didn’t say ‘no,’ sir…”

“Are you interrupting me?” I ask whoever it was that dared to speak. The line falls silent. “Now, as I was saying, in just the past few minutes, I have grown fucking tired of hearing what we can’t fucking do, no matter how you try to phrase it. I have an entire shipping department that sends things worldwide—including foodstuffs to third world countries—and my guy in Detroit is telling me that he can’t get my grandfather’s belongings here in a timely manner without busting them all to pieces. So, to alleviate the possibility of my crazy ass uncle coming down to the storage facility and starting any shit while we’re trying to sort this out, I ask for a security detail to be dispatched to the location in case he starts feeling froggy and now, my head of security is telling me how thinly spread they are even though in addition to being able to send a banana to Antarctica and have it arrive intact, I own more security subsidiaries across the country than I can count. Money can do just about anything these days except bring the dead back to life and I’m richer than Midas. So, right now, I need the two of you to act like you have an endless money pot and fix these fucking problems!

“Yes, sir,” they say almost simultaneously. I end the call without another word and thrust my hand into my hair. I’m asking for shit to be shipped and I’m asking for a security detail. How hard can this fucking be?

I turn around to see my father and uncle staring at me.

“It’s not all that important, Christian,” Uncle Herman says. “I’ve talked to the management, and Freeman won’t get off the lot with anything.”

“There’s a couple of problems with that thinking,” I tell him. “The storage facility may be private property, but anybody can get in there—wire cutters, climb a fence, whatever. The management team aren’t going to be there 24/7 and quite frankly, neither are my guys. Freeman is already irrational and delusional. He’s harassed me to the point of having to get a restraining order and he’s beaten his son to the degree that he needs plastic surgery. I don’t put it past him for a second that he’ll go down there and bust in every door until he finds Pops’ stuff, or that he’ll find where they’re working and just start breaking Pops’ shit for the hell of it, or worse yet, hurt one of my guys. Can you guarantee me that he won’t do that?” I ask.

Uncle Herman just looks at me for a few moments. Freeman started a fight with and assaulted my father in his own house, then provoked me to the point of nearly choking him to death. Then he came back with the police and said that we started the fight. He’s a loose fucking cannon and right now, nobody’s there to keep him in check.

“No, son,” Uncle Herman says. “I can’t guarantee that.”

“I didn’t expect you would, but here’s the bigger issue. I run an international company with nearly bottomless resources. If I ask for fresh snow from the highest peak of Mt. Everest, intact and on my desk, I expect to get it—however they have to get it to me, but that’s not what I’m asking for. I’m asking for items—and yes, a lot of items and some of them very fragile—to be shipped across the country as soon as possible and for a security team to be present at the storage facility to make sure everything runs smoothly. Yet, twice in the last few minutes, I have the two HMIC’s telling me what they can’t do. I’m going to assume that they conveniently forgot who they were speaking to, and that they’ll have a game plan for me by the end of business.”

Uncle Herman and Dad look at each other and then back at me.

“You’re the boss,” Uncle Herman says. “I just don’t want you putting yourself or your company out for this.”

“Pops’ preserved all that stuff for his family,” I begin. “I know that he intended for Freeman to have some of it, but if Freeman had his way, he’d sell everything and run off with the money! This way, Pops’ legacy is being spread among all of his children, his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren. The jewelry that you gave me for my wife— Butterfly cried when I gave her those things! And they will most likely one day end up in my daughter’s hands. How do you think Pops’ and Grandma Ruby feel looking down on that right now?” Herman smiles a warm smile.

“Pretty damn good,” he says contentedly. I nod.

“Damn straight! So, if the one selfish bastard who would ruin it for the whole family is the one person that gets cut out of the process, I can live with that, and I’m sure that my grandparents understand. Now, these people that I have in charge of these things are getting paid well enough to lick their wounds later, and if they want to keep getting paid those handsome salaries, they’ll stop dragging their asses, kill the excuses, and find a way to make this happen. So, don’t worry about it one more moment. The only thing you should be concerned about is who gets what and then we’ll make sure that it gets to be where it needs to be.”

“Like I said,” Uncle Herman says, still smiling, “You’re the boss… speaking of which, Ana emailed me about Mom’s wardrobe.” My brow furrows.

“Her wardrobe?” I ask. He nods.

“Yeah. I noticed that Ana wasn’t on the mailing list for Mom and Dad’s things. I thought it might have been an oversight, so I asked for her email address and sent her this list. I hope I didn’t overstep…”

“Oh, no, no, not at all, Uncle Herman. It actually was an oversight on my part. I didn’t even think to add my wife to the list. You know, the whole ‘we have everything we need thing,’” I excuse. I hope Butterfly won’t be too warm with me for not adding her to the list. It really was an accident. “So, what’s this about the wardrobe?”

“Apparently, your wife is a vintage clothing connoisseur,” my uncle says. “Mom’s heyday was the fifties and sixties, and even though she bought new things in the later decades, she kept all of her clothes and had many of them preserved in cedar chests and things like that. Georgie thought to send some pictures with the email of some of Mom’s things. I wouldn’t have thought the kids would be interested in any of those things, but your wife went nuts! As long as I get Mom’s wedding dress, I’ve agreed to send everything else to Ana. She’s going to keep what she wants and consign the rest with the proceeds going to Helping Hands.”

Butterfly in true vintage Lindy-bop dresses. I’m having a separate conversation with Greystone right now to keep him in check.

“Oh, yes, Butterfly loves that era of clothing. Her closet at her condo is nothing but vintage replicas. She’s going to have a field day with this. Thanks, Uncle Herman.” He smiles.

“A very small token, Christian,” he says. “If we didn’t have you, I have no idea how we’d get through this.”

“It’s the very least I could do,” I say


ANASTASIA

Marilyn may not want to discuss her situation with me, but as her employer, she’s going to have to tell me something sooner or later. Nonetheless, I’ve promised to stay out of her business and allow her to sort this out on her own. I won’t approach her about it unless she asks—or if she starts showing, whichever comes first.

“Courtney,” I ask when she comes out of the kitchen after I hang up from Marilyn, “I don’t mean to pry, but what conversation have you had?” She frowns.

“What?” she asks, bemused.

“With Harmony,” I say. “When you mentioned fattening her up, she said you had already had that conversation.”

“Oh, that… she can’t keep anything down when she’s really upset,” Courtney informs me.

“Oh,” I nod. “Could she be pregnant?” Courtney shakes her head.

“I asked the same thing. She’s been celibate for nearly a year now. It’s just her nerves. They’re really bad.”

“I can only imagine,” I say. “And this experience is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.” I rub my scar and sigh heavily.

“What’s wrong, Ana?” Courtney asks. I shake my head.

“I never understood the concept of death bringing out the worst in people. She’s barely hanging on, now she’s going to have to go head to head with these people who are supposed to be her siblings, so to speak.”

“Well,” she says, putting her arm around my shoulder, “That’s why she has us. I told Vick that I’ll be staying here with her tonight, so she might drop by. Should I let somebody know?”

“Yeah, just tell security. It’ll be fine,” I inform her.

I’m not as worn out when I get home as I was yesterday thanks to Courtney’s presence, but I remember that I need to call Val to find out the results of her doctor’s appointment. I’m anxious to know if Meg has returned and I’ll be front and center for her this time if she has.

“What did the doctor say?” I ask immediately after greeting her when she answers the phone.

“There’s nothing to worry about,” she says. “Meg has not reared her ugly head. Like I told you, there was a perfectly logical reason for the dizzy spells, so everyone can breathe now.”

“Did he say how often you’ll have them?” I press. “Or how long? Are they like the throbbing in my scar where you just have to deal with them whenever they show up?”

“Something like that,” she says. “We don’t know yet how often I’ll have them or for how long, but we’re pretty certain that they’re not permanent. What’s important is that my healing is still on track—more than on track, in fact—and we don’t have to prepare for any surgeries or radiation, thank God!”

“Were you worried, Val?” I ask, my voice softening. She sighs.

“I try to keep a positive outlook, Steele,” she says. “Life’s too short and you can’t spend it worrying, but… the unknown… that shit is scary as fuck.”

“I know,” I tell her. “I’m sorry that I wasn’t more supportive last weekend. I know you really could have used the encouragement.”

“Honestly, don’t trouble yourself. Just like you were finding your way last week, I had to find mine. There are some journeys that we must travel alone, as you well know.” I nod as if she can see me.

“I well know,” I confirm.

“So, what’s on your agenda for the rest of the week?” she asks, affectively changing the subject. I sigh.

“Tina died,” I say, sadly. “I’m at Harmony’s disposal. I know she needs me.”

“Oh, Ana. That poor girl. I know her pain. Give her my condolences, please.”

“I will. Luckily, there’s not too much that needs to be done. Tina made her own arrangements before she died. She knew that Harmony wouldn’t be able to handle it. And their attorney—he’s cordial and accommodating. He cares more about them than her own children.”

“Could it be the money?” she asks.

“It could be, but I sense a loyalty to the family—or at least, to Tina—that goes far deeper than money. After the mess of Harmony’s divorce and already having to deal with losing a loving mother…” I trail off. I’m grateful for Carl and how he’s handling things, even though I’m not the one who has to deal with all this. “He was at the county office the moment he learned that the quit deed had been registered getting copies of it for Harmony. I have a feeling that Tina was waiting for the deed to be finalized before she let go.”

“Oh, dear, that’s so sad,” Val says. “Those kids of hers must be some gruesome lot.”

“They’ve proven to be just that, but Christian and I are ready for them. It looks like we’ve adopted yet another family member.”

“You seem to do that a lot,” she laughs. “Marlow and his family, Luma and the girls… what about that other lady? Thelma and… what was that guy’s name?”

“James,” I remind her. She wasn’t around for that drama, but I filled her in later. “You should get to meet them at the gala on Thanksgiving weekend. It’s been decided that the Adopt-A-Family Affair is going to be the Adopt-A-Family Reunion. So, invitations have gone out to all of the families who had been listed to be adopted over the last five years.”

“That’s kinda cool,” she says. “Will they still be adopting families this year, or will it all be the Reunion?”

“No, things will still be going as planned,” I tell her. “We’ll just have more guests at the party this year than usual. So, have you had a cooking lesson this week?”

“A small one,” she says. “Chicken alfredo. It was simple, and I caught on pretty quickly…”

I continue my conversation with Val with her reminding me that Thanksgiving dinner will be at her house this year. Jason, Gail, and Sophie will be joining us as will Marlow, Maggie, and Marcia, so I’ll at least have one of my nannies with me. Chuck and Keri will be visiting some of Chuck’s extended “family”—people who have somewhat adopted him like we did. He wants to introduce Keri to them.

Val’s house is large, but unfortunately can’t accommodate a Grey family sleepover, so the Grey siblings as well as Jason and Gail will be staying the night at Val and Elliot’s while the parents—including Dad and Mandy—and Herman and Luma will be at Grey Manor.

Friday, the ladies will meet for Black Friday shopping as usual, then go to Miana’s for our Black Friday spa day. Keri will join us for Black Friday, and Minnie will spend the day with the ladies along with Celida, Mariah, and Sophie while Mikey and Harry hang out with the guys. The family will then all converge on Grey Manor for dinner and be spending Friday night there to have brunch on Saturday, then go to the Adopt-A-Family Reunion from there. Keri and Gail will get the twins home and Jason and Chuck will, of course, be on duty with me and Christian.

After the gala, we’ll all return to Grey Crossing, where the family will spend the night, have their final weekend brunch, and disperse to their homes. This way, all three homes will have hosted part of the Thanksgiving weekend… except for Mia who promises to maybe look for a bigger place and host a holiday next year.

Val is telling me about the Thanksgiving meal that will be catered and served by staff when my husband’s voice breaks into our conversation.

“I hear you’re going to have a sexy new wardrobe soon.”

I look up at him and shake my head.

“I gotta go, Val,” I tell her. “My husband has just arrived and, of course, requires my attention.”

“Of course,” she laughs. “I’ll talk to you soon.” We end the call.

“What sexy new wardrobe are you talking about?” I ask. “Ruby’s things?”

“Yeah,” he says, going into his dressing room. “I hear her entire vintage wardrobe is being shipped here.”

“Yeah, no thanks to you!” I yell into the dressing room. “Herman told me that list was supposed to go to all the children and grand-children. How did I not make the cut? I am your wife.”

“That was a terrible oversight on my part,” he says coming out of the dressing room while unbuttoning his shirt. “I’ll be honest—we already have so much that I wasn’t even thinking about us getting anything on that list. I’m sorry, baby.”

“You’re forgiven,” I say. “And what made you say that the wardrobe is sexy?”

“Lindy-bop dresses?” he says going back to his dressing room. “I’ve seen you in those—all demure and shit. They drive me crazy. And Uncle Herman says that the fifties and sixties were Grandma Ruby’s heyday, so I know she’s probably got some hot stuff in there.” He comes back out in a T-shirt and sweats.

“I don’t know how you fit all your junk in there,” I say. He looks behind him.

“In where? In there?” he says pointing to his dressing room.

“No, in there?” I say pointing to his sweatpants. “That’s a lot of meat and I’ve seen lesser men hang and wobble in those.” He looks down at his sweats.

“Why do you think I wear boxer briefs?” he says. “Jock straps are out of the question, as are tighty-whities, and even soft, I peek out of regular boxers. These were the only option.” I shake my head.

“I guess I should be happy I didn’t fall in love with an itty-bity. That would have been a disaster.” Christian laughs loudly.

“I guess so,” he says, through his laughter. “So, what’s on the agenda for tonight?”

“Food, then sleep, my love,” I say. “I’ve got some things to do at the Center tomorrow and then, I’m going to Harmony’s to finalize things for Tina’s service. It’s going to be Saturday, so we have to wrap things up.”

“No word from the siblings yet?” he asks.

“Not a peep,” I say. “It’s been quiet. Too quiet.”

“Jesus! Won’t they even help with the final arrangements?” I shrug.

“If they don’t get it in gear by tomorrow, they won’t have any input, so…” I trail off.

“Jeez, what a brood,” he says, shaking his head. “Let’s go eat.”

*-*

I discover that I spoke too soon about no word from the siblings. I get a text from Harmony at about 10am that she has to go to the funeral home for the final viewing of her mother before they present her for public viewing. I ask if she wants me or Courtney to go with her, but she assures me that she’ll be fine.

“This is the easy part,” she says. “Making sure a pretty woman in life is still pretty in death.”

She’s livid when I get to her house.

“That was not my mother!” she fumes. “The idea is to make sure that the dead don’t look dead,” she says. She pulls out her phone.

“I gave them this picture!” She scrolls through her phone and shows me a picture of Tina when she was alive.

“This is what they did.” I wasn’t prepared for her to show me a picture of Tina’s corpse, but that’s exactly what it was—a corpse… not in a casket, on a slab. It was clean and neat and presentable… and flaxen white. We know the deceased isn’t with us anymore, but we don’t want them to look that way! And what’s with that fucking hair? That’s not a bouffant, is it? It looks horrendous!

82920f4c350d65dc46d4b246afcc86f3

BOUFFANT 

“Was someone practicing?” I ask before I realize the words are out of my mouth, still gazing at the picture in dismay.

“That’s what I asked!” she seethes and scrolls through her phone again.

“That’s how she looks now!” she nearly hisses. Tina has been redone and is now lying in her casket with an ethereal glow. Her hair is how I remembered her wearing it at Mia’s wedding. Her coloring is perfect and she’s wearing a beautiful blue dress with long sleeves and a high Victorian-style collar. She looks stately and beautiful, and completely at rest.

“Well, at least they got it right the second time,” I say, examining the picture.

“They didn’t,” she says, swiping her phone and clearing the screen. “I did.”

My eyes must look like bowling balls. I can’t believe what I’m hearing.

“What?” I ask in disbelief.

“That’s what took four hours,” she says as she put her phone away. “I came back here, got my mother’s makeup and redid it. Then I had to give her a dry shampoo to get all that horrible hair spray out of her hair—something that I’ve never seen her use…” Harmony is furious and covers her face as she shakes her head.

“I must be delusional or insane with grief, because I swear I saw her smile at me when I had finished.” She raises angry eyes to me. “And it brought me peace—for a minute. In my head, I went on this insane rant, this ‘Who the fuck is this woman’ rant when I saw this stranger lying on a slab posing as my mother, but my anger just wouldn’t come out. I wanted it to, but it wouldn’t.”

She walks away from me and starts pacing around the room.

“I tried to tell them that wasn’t my mother, and they tried to tell me that death changes the face. I know that death changes the face, but that wasn’t even close. I asked if they even looked at the picture when they did my mother’s hair and makeup, and they just did this blank stare thing. I told them not to touch my mother and that I would be back, and that’s when I came home and got the supplies. Maybe it’s just the quality of the makeup…”

“No, it’s not just the quality,” I tell her, recalling the first picture of Tina. “She looked like a Halloween costume, and a bad one at that. They could have done much better.” I put my hand on her shoulder. “You did an excellent job.”

“Thank you,” she says, still angry. “I’m so pissed, I just want to hit something.”

As if from Harmony’s mouth to God’s ears, one of the security detail announces that she has visitors demanding entrance to her home. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who it is.

“Let ‘em in!” she says combatively, folding her arms and facing the entrance to the dining room.

Showtime!

I’m standing behind the sofa when they enter. None of them look their age. They look late forties at the latest, but I know from the intel that Christian gave me that the youngest of them—Paige—is 60 years old. The wonders of modern medicine.

They all walk in, stepping in sync, and one of the women folds her arms and adjusts her weight like she’s ready to face off.

I can’t fucking believe this. They all showed up together—unannounced, like a posse. They remind me of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad coming to wipe everybody out, only they didn’t expect to find her fifty guards deep. They expected her to be alone.

I lift my wrist to my mouth, clear my throat, and whisper a single word into the mouthpiece there.

“Backup.”

This is the signal that I want at least five other people in this room right now. I got seven.

“Harmony,” one of the women greet.

“Paige,” Harmony acknowledges with the same indifference.

“What’s with the goon squad?” one of the men jeer.

“You tell me,” Harmony says, folding her arms. “My ringer must be malfunctioning, because Mom’s been dead for two days and I don’t recall a call from any of you.”

“We didn’t get a call from you, either,” the same man retorts.

“Why would I call you, Theo?” she counters. “You never answered any other time I called, or when Mom called. Why would now be any different?” She looks from face to face.

“You got the call that you were waiting for—from her attorney. You comin’ to collect? Well, I hope he told you that you’re going to have to wait until the reading of the will.” The other woman, whom I deduce is Ilsa, scoffs.

“You look awful,” Paige says. “Are you on drugs?” Harmony’s eyes narrow.

“No,” she hisses, “I’m mourning the loss of my mother. You look great, by the way, for having just lost yours!” Paige is taken aback by her frankness. “Did you come to help with Mom’s arrangements?” she asks sarcastically.

“Well,” Ilsa says, “we were coming to help you clean up, get things in order, so to speak.”

“Well, as you can see,” Harmony says gesturing around the house, “everything looks like a shiny new penny, so I don’t need any help cleaning up.

“We mean like packing up Mom’s things,” Theodore interjects.

“You mean like picking through Mom’s things,” Harmony corrects him. “She’s not even cold yet, Theo. Can’t you even wait until she’s laid to rest before you start picking her bones dry?”

“That’s my mother you’re talking about!” he barks.

“Yeah, you might want to remember that!” Harmony retorts. “Mom’s dead. She’s gone! She’s not coming back, and there’s not a tear between you, but you want to ask me if I’m on drugs because I’ve cried a river in three days and I can’t keep anything down because I lost my mom. So, to answer your question, no—I don’t need your help cleaning up. We have a staff here who can help me with that. Anything else?” Paige sighs impatiently.

“I gave Mom a set of diamond earrings,” she huffs. “Unless she’s being buried in them, I want them back. I gave them to her for her 50th birthday. They’re 4-carats each. You can’t miss them.”

“No,” Harmony says firmly. “The stipulation states that nothing will be distributed from Mom’s estate until the will is read and that’s how it’s going to be.”

“So, what’s to stop you from taking her stuff?” Jason says.

“Well, you’ll just have to trust me, now, won’t you?” Harmony retorts, folding her arms. “Mom certainly did.”

“We don’t know that,” Theodore hisses.

“And you never will,” Harmony hisses back, “because you weren’t here to help take care of her, now, were you? You couldn’t be bothered to leave your oh-so-important lives to come and see about your dying mother! I sat here and took care of her for months and watched her slip away and now you want to come and throw darts at me?”

Harmony is drawing on some much-needed anger to fend off her selfish and greedy siblings. None of them have a response for not being there for Tina, so they resort back to accusing Harmony of manipulating her.

“I see you didn’t wait for the stipulation to take the house,” Ilsa says.

“That was Mom’s doing,” Harmony counters. “She put the house in my name before she died so you couldn’t come and put me out, which I fully know was your plan until you found out that Mom made it legal.”

“And stop calling her ‘Mom!’ She’s not your mom!” Theodore huffs.

“She is my mom!” Harmony roars, shocking us all. “And your hateful, belittling, treacherous, greedy, selfish attitudes and behavior is not going to change that. Now, get the hell out of my house!”

Your house!” Paige scoffs. “Couldn’t wait to say that, could you?”

“Damn straight!” Harmony says. “Get these people out of my house please,” she says to the security staff. The security detail begins to move forward toward the unwanted visitors.

“You can’t throw us out of Mom’s house!” Jonah protests.

“It’s my house now, and I can throw you out,” Harmony says definitively.

“If you put your hands on me, I’ll scream,” Paige tells one of the guards.

“And I’ll sue you,” Theodore tells another, “and you, too,” he adds to Harmony.

“Scream your little heart out!” Harmony says to Paige before turning to Theodore. “Sue away if you’ve got money to burn. I told you to leave my house. As of this moment, you’re trespassing. According to Washington law, I and my staff can legally remove you by any means necessary if you refuse to leave. Look it up—it’s public information.” She turns back to the security detail. “Get them out of my house.” The security detail create a half circle around the siblings.

“Ladies, gentlemen?” one of them says to the group while gesturing to the vestibule area. If looks could kill, there would be daggers flying across the room at Harmony, but I’m certain that her determined anger is forming a force field that renders their daggers ineffective, causing them to drop uselessly to the floor. Jonah whispers something to Ilsa, who nods before they turn to leave.

“Oh,” Harmony adds, “and you can forget about the secret doors. They’re locked, alarmed, and guarded… all of them.” Jonah whirls around as does Ilsa, revealing that this was the content of their whispered tête-à-tête.

“I’ll blow this whole house up with you in it,” Jonah threatens. Oh, he’s gone too far now.

“You try it,” Harmony seethes. “I’ll hunt your old ass down to the end of the earth. My trust kicked in after the divorce, so I’ve got the money for it.”

I can’t keep silent anymore.

“And friends in high places who just heard you threaten to commit murder,” I add. He pales a bit when I speak. “You should take her advice and leave now. I’m sure you’ll all get your piece of the pie at the reading of the will, which is all you really want, right?”

“You…” Jonah begins to me.

“Don’t,” I say, holding up one well-manicured finger. “Let me save you the headache and the lifetime of misery because this…” I point to myself with both index fingers, “… is a battle that you don’t want. If you’re slightly concerned about her, then you should be terrified of me because all of these people…” the same two fingers scan the whole room, “… work for me. And if you think her money is power, my money makes hers look like a piggy bank. Do you really want this?”

I’m picking a fight that I know he won’t follow through with. In fact, none of them will. They came to bully Harmony and didn’t expect her to be carrying a baseball bat. Then he turned on me—or thought he was going to turn on me—and got confronted with a wrecking ball.

“Gentlemen,” I say to my security staff, “show these people out by any means necessary.”

The staff moves in and the siblings once again head towards the door. Theodore, determined to destroy something on his way out, kicks over a table in the foyer causing the vase full of flowers to shatter all over the foyer floor. Within a moment, one of the guys from the security detail lifts him into the air by the back of his coat. His feet are flailing and he’s shouting obscenities while the others look on in total shock. The detail gets him to the porch and literally throws him off like that kid from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

200

It takes everything in me to keep from laughing when I see that man fly through the air and land on the lawn with a thud. Harmony isn’t as tactful.

“If you come back here again, I’m going to shoot first and ask questions later,” my security says. “You are all a threat to the lady of the house, and I will treat you as such.” He turns around and glares at Jonah, who doesn’t hesitate the scurry out of the house. Harmony goes to the door, laughing hysterically.

“I’ll send you the bill, Theo!” she yells into the night.

“Good luck collectin’!” he yells back.

“Never mind, then,” she retorts. “I’ll just submit it to the estate and have it taken from your share of the inheritance!”

“Fuck you, bitch!” he yells back while limping to his car.

“No thanks, Unc!” she yells. “I’m afraid your equipment is out of commission!” She turns back to Ilsa and Paige.

“Do you ladies need directions?” Harmony asks, all mirth gone from her voice. “I’m sure this gentleman would be only too happy to assist you!”

The ejection guard moves over to stand next to Harmony, prompting Ilsa to give Paige a little push before both women leave without another word. We watch as the gruesome foursome get into various cars and screech down the circle drive and off the premises.

“God! That felt good!” Harmony says as she walks back to the dining room.

“You haven’t seen the last of them, Harmony,” I warn as I follow her into the dining room and the detail secures the house.

243b0453c83e3f27031b22d2e7c3aa07“Good! Let ‘em bring it. I have a lot of pent-up anger and frustration from being ignored, being mistreated, being abandoned, taken for granted, and now losing the only person in the world that meant anything to me and having the funeral home make her up like the goddamn crypt keeper. This rage needs to be fed and they’re the perfect fucking food!”

She paces angrily around the dining room, her emotions cementing a snarl on her face that could scare the devil.

“I’m fucked up, Ana,” she hisses, pacing around the entire circumference of the dining room. “I’m seeing someone about it, but I’m fucked up. I’ve been fucked-up for as long as I could remember. As a kid, I couldn’t understand why people couldn’t love me—only my Mom. My sisters and brothers had kids that were older than me, and I didn’t get it. Then one day, dear old Dad lets me know why. I’m adopted—Franklin blood, yes, but two generations down adopted. I didn’t even know he was my father, and God only knows where my bio-mom is. That’s why they treated me so distant, why they were so ugly to me. But not once—not once—did my mother treat me like an outsider. Not once did she make me feel like I was not her child.

“I put her through hell,” she continues. “I wasn’t as bad as some kids, but she was too old to be dealing with my shit. I started having sex at 12, trying to find that love—that acceptance and attention that I was missing. I was a goddamn train wreck, and she didn’t deserve that. But you know what? She still made me feel like I was the most valued, most precious treasure in the world.

“When I got older and I met Ken, and he treated me like the sun, the moon, and the stars… an older guy—more mature, right? He knew things about the world and he made me feel good, and…” She shakes her head and continues to pace.

“I thought he was a great guy. I thought he was in love with me. When Mom said that I wouldn’t get my trust if I married him, I thought, ‘Fine, we’re in love. We’ll make it on our own.’ That’s when his true colors came out. He’s a dog and only wanted my money. All the others before him only wanted sex… and I only wanted to be loved.” She sighs heavily.

“So here I am now, all fucked up and trying to get out of the marriage, and I didn’t want to come back home to Mom, because I didn’t want to hear ‘I told you so…’ which she never said, by the way. But then she called me, and she told me what was going on, and I came home as quick as I could. I expected to walk in and find her bio-kids all camped out and clustered around her…” She trails off and shows the first sign of sadness. “And when I got here, she was all alone. She was dying, and she was all alone. I assumed that she hadn’t called them—that she called me first. But she had called us all, and I’m the only one who came. I didn’t know what I could do for her—I just knew I had to be here.”

“You did it, Harmony,” I say, making her pause in her trek. “You were here for her. You were the only one of her children that was here for her. That’s what she needed. She had doctors and nurses to care for her physically as much as they could. She had Carl to take care of her property, her legal issues. Roger was supposed to take care of her home, but he fell through and we came in, so she had someone for that. But she needed you to love her through her final days and her transition, and that’s what you did. That’s why she called you all, and where those losers never even showed up to the game, you were the pinch hitter and you hit that ball right out of the park. Don’t you see that?”

Harmony is breathing through angry tears as she fights to formulate her words.

“It was the least I could do,” she chokes. “She was… is… my angel. My guardian, my savior… she’s everything to me. It was the least… the very least…” She shakes her head and wipes her tears. “So, let them fucking come. I’ll unleash a level of hell on them that they’ve never seen in their entire lives!”

And there’s that fire again.

“Ana, I’m really very fucked up… and I need you to know that I made googly eyes at Christian,” she spits out. She doesn’t look at me as she confesses. “I didn’t want to fuck him… really. He’s a good-lookin’ guy, but… it wasn’t that. It’s that he had done this really great thing for my mom and he’s male and…” She rolls her eyes and continues. “I was grateful, not attracted and it was just… He didn’t give me the time of day. He didn’t even entertain the idea.”

Those last two sentences are the only two full sentences she’s actually formed, I think.

“I understand if you’re mad at me and don’t want to deal with me anymore…”

“Harmony,” I say, halting her rant, “I already know. It’s fine, I get it.”

She freezes again and stares at me.

“Oh, dear God, he swore that he wouldn’t tell you!” she says horrified. “I swore it wouldn’t happen again and he swore that he would never tell you!”

“And he kept his promise initially,” I tell her, “but when I told him how bad off you were after finding Tina had passed and he thought it best that I knew…” I trail off.

“To keep me from running into the arms of the nearest loser,” she completes my sentence. Well, I wouldn’t have put it that way, but… pretty much.

“You’re golden, Ana,” she says finitely. “If I were you, I would’ve kicked my ass.” I scoff a laugh.

“Only because I understand,” I inform her, “and if you do it again, I will.”

“Understood,” she replies, wiping her tears, “and don’t worry, I won’t.”


CHRISTIAN

It’s well after dinner, and my wife still isn’t home yet. She hasn’t texted me or called to say that she’ll be late, and I’m trying not to panic. Honestly, I’m not panicking. I’m just trying not to let my imagination run away with me. Although mine aren’t as prominent, Butterfly wasn’t the only one left with remnants of the Boogeyman after the whole Westwick situation.

To this day, I don’t know how I could have thought my wife would ever be unfaithful. She had already told me long ago that infidelity was a deal breaker for her. Yet, I believed that she would risk our home, our life, and our happiness for a stranger that she had only known for a few weeks.

Striking blue eyes… asshole!

I ascend the stairs and knock on the door of the nursery. When there’s no answer, I open the door and peak inside. It’s quiet—no nannies. My children must be asleep. I haven’t spent any time with them the entire week, but Mom says that I’m okay now, so I’m coming to see my children.

I step in quietly and close the door. Minnie’s crib is closest to the door, so I peak in at her. She’s fast asleep. I kiss my fingers and gently pat her cheek before I look in on my son. He’s awake, but fitful. He’s not crying and he actually looks sleepy, but he can’t seem to find his slumber.

I take him out of the bed and he immediately lands on my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. I sit in the rocker and rub his little back.

“You havin’ a rough time without her, too?” I ask. He raises gray eyes to me that look like mine. Then he puts his two fingers in his mouth and starts to suck as he lays his head on my shoulder.

I love you, kid, but we’re going to have to break that habit.

I’m concerned about him needing dental work, but their pediatrician actually says that if he must suck a finger or two, these are the best ones. Thumbs push against your upper mouth and teeth and interfere with the formation of bone structure, resulting in overbites and crooked teeth—and the need for ugly and expensive braces. The other prominent fingers push down on the tongue. So as long as they stop sucking before their permanent teeth come in, they should be fine.

I’m not buying it. My son will not be going to the first grade sucking his fingers… but for right now, it’s okay.

“I don’t think I ever sucked my fingers, Mikey,” I say as I rock back and forth. “At least, I don’t remember doing it. There’s a lot I don’t remember, though.”

I look out the window and I can see the light of the moon through the curtains even though I can’t see the moon itself.

“I remember…” I begin, and my thoughts go back to the very recess of my mind. Did the crack whore ever hold me like this? Did she ever rock me to sleep and give me gentle pecks on the cheek? When did she fall into the clutches of the pimp? How could she let that happen to us? Did she ever love me? At all?

“You don’t have to worry about that, Mikey,” I say as I rock him. “You have the most beautiful, kindest, caring mother in the whole world… well, your grandma’s pretty great, too, but you mom… she’s one of a kind.

“I didn’t think about that, you know, when I first met her… what kind of mother she’d be. No, son, I had much more unsavory thoughts which you may never learn about. I don’t imagine any man thinks about that kind of thing when he first meets a woman—unless he’s specifically looking for a wife. Who knows what any man thinks? I’m sure a normal man wouldn’t look at a woman and think about how badly he wants to chain her to a cross and be—”

I stop abruptly, remembering my audience. TMI, Grey. I look down at my son and his eyes are closed. He’s not completely lost to the sandman as he’s still sucking his fingers quite rhythmically.

“I know you do that as a means of comfort,” I say. “Is it because it reminds you of the nipple?”

I almost expect him to answer.

“Yeah, I get it, kid. Nothing tastes like that nipple… well, maybe one other thing for me.” I chuckle quietly as I have once again given my son too much information, even though he doesn’t know it.

“You’ll never have my life, Mikey,” I promise him. “You’ll never see the horrors that I saw or be abused or mistreated. There are so many people who love you if something were to happen to me and your mom, and I thank God for that. You and your sister will be set for the rest of your lives. But make no mistake, young man, I’ll expect you to work hard, follow your dreams and make something of yourself—just like I did.”

Just like I did…

I fell… no—I walked into the clutches of that horrible woman and my life changed forever. I will admit that had it not been for her money, I wouldn’t have been able to start my business. Well, that’s not necessarily true. With a good business plan, I probably would have been able to get a small business loan on the reputation of my last name alone, but I wasn’t thinking about that back then. I was thinking about the fact that my father had turned me down and was nearly ready to kick me out of the house for dropping out of college… and about fucking… fucking her. Right now, I can hardly believe how badly I wanted her. She was all I thought about most of the time. Everything I did was a means to an end to get back to her.

Do well in school. Get back to her…
Don’t get into fights. Get back to her…
Don’t date girls. Get back to her…
Get into college. Get back to her…
Behave myself. Get back to her…
Follow instructions. Get back to her…
Do whatever was necessary to get back to her…

Would she have even lent me the money if she wasn’t fucking and beating me? Probably not. I look back down at my sleeping son. He’s not suckling his fingers anymore.

“Promise me you’ll come talk to me first, champ… about anything,” I beseech him. “I swear, I’ll listen. I’ll even back your dreams, and if I don’t agree with them, we’ll talk about it—to see how sound and feasible they are. We’ll come to a compromise, or something, but I’ll never shut you down, kid. I’ll never feed you to the wolves.”

That’s not what my parents did, but the wolf got me anyway.


A/N: I Peter 5:8—”Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour. 

HMIC—there are many connotations, one in particular for those in the UK, but in this instance, “HMIC” is “Head Man In Charge.”

The “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad” are the four other characters that tried to kill “The Bride” (Uma Thurman’s character, Beatrice Kiddo aka Black Mamba) in Kill Bill, hence prompting the stories Kill Bill, Vol I and II, where Kiddo sets out to kill all four members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, plus Bill.  

Pictures of places, cars, fashion, etc., can be found at https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/raising-grey/

The new question and answer thread is always open for questions about the story. be sure to read it and please adhere to the rules when asking questions. You can find it on the left, second from last in the menu our you can click HERE.

There has been yet another development where if you feel the need to talk to fellow readers about personal issues, you need a sounding board, you want to vent about something in your life, please feel free to visit the link on the left in the menu entitled “Do You Need To Talk.” No subject is taboo. I just ask that you approach the link with respect for those who have concerns as well as those who respond. You can also get to the link by clicking HERE

You can join my mailing list on the “Contact Me” page. Just click the link and it will lead you to a form to join the list.

 ~~love and handcuffs

Raising Grey: Chapter 50—Unexpected Guests

This is a work of creativity. As such, you may see words, concepts, scenes, actions, behaviors, pictures, implements, and people that may or may not be socially acceptable and/or offensive. If you are sensitive to adverse and alternative subject matter of any kind, please do not proceed, because I guarantee you’ll find it here. You have been warned. Read at your own risk.

I do not own Fifty Shades Trilogy, or the characters. They belong to E. L. James. I am only exercising my right to exploit, abuse, and mangle the characters to MY discretion in MY story in MY interpretation as a fan. If something that I say displeases you, please, just leave. If you don’t like this story or me, please don’t spoil this experience for everyone. Just go away. For the rest of you, the saga continues…

Chapter 50—Unexpected Guests

ANASTASIA

Sakes alive, she looks just like me. I think she’s even younger than I am! Same haircut, blueish-greenish-gray eyes, similar build—before I had my babies, that is… what the fuck?

“Whoa,” Daddy says, under his breath. I’m sure he’s having the same thought I am. This shit is creeping me out and I really don’t know how to handle it. I don’t really care who Brian fucks, but did he have to go get my twin? She looks even more like me than I look like Shannon… and I really look like Shannon.

“I know,” I hear Maxie’s voice say from behind me. I turn around to look at her. “It’s uncanny. I started talking to her when I got here, thinking she was you.”

“And how did she take that?” I ask.

“She laughed it off and just went on about her day. I’m sure he’s told her that she looks like you and who you are.” I twist my lips.

“It takes some getting used to, that there’s someone else in the world that looks so much like me.”

“No, she looks like you used to look,” Maxie corrects.

“You said yourself that you struck up a conversation with her thinking she was me,” I protest.

“That’s because I know how you used to look and I could have mistaken her for the old you, but anybody who knows you now knows that’s not you. You’re a mother, you’ve got some wisdom and it shows. She seems nice and all, but she doesn’t have that sophistication that oozes off of you, and it’s not the money, Honey. You’ve been that way since I’ve known you. So, from a distance, she might pass for college Ana, but up close, nope. When I tapped her on the shoulder and she turned around, I knew it was mistaken identity.” I laugh.

“Often imitated, never duplicated,” I murmur.

“Indeed,” Maxie says, giving me a high-five. We share a few moments of our private joke before Christian joins us again.

“So, what’s the joke?” he says. “I want to laugh, too.” I turn around to look at him and see Brian over his shoulder. He was making his way over to me but pauses and decides on a detour when he sees that Christian gets to me first.

“We were talking about possessive husbands who like to cockblock ex-wannabe-suitors midstride,” I tease.

“He’s got to get through me if he wants to get anywhere near you,” Christian says. “The last time we spoke, he said he was happy with that Ana Lookalike that he brought to your father’s house and to leave him alone. And I have, so now, he can leave you alone.” I raise my brow.

“It’s not that serious, Christian. I really don’t care.”

“I do,” he says. “I have no doubt that he wakes up and when he rolls over and looks into her face, he sees you. One day, he’s going to look at that woman and not see you, and I don’t know what he’s going to do when that happens. In the meantime…” He puts both arms possessively around my waist, “… My girl said she wanted a party. I couldn’t think of a better reason to celebrate.”

I look around the room at the wonderful “baby shower” set-up that’s going on—the only babies in attendance being mine, passed from person to person and testing the whole stranger theory. So far, so good—no fires, floods, hurricanes or baby sirens. Christian even brought our staff, who are preparing what looks like a fabulous steak lunch—exactly what Daddy wanted after the proceedings—and awesome hors d’oeuvres for before lunch.

“You did this all in a few hours?” I ask. He nods. “In the middle of a Monday afternoon, you got everybody to skip work and come here?”

“Are you kidding?” Maxie says. “We wouldn’t miss this.”

“Yeah,” Phil says joining the conversation behind his wife. “This has been such a long time coming. When Christian called, I suddenly got a stomach thing and had to leave work,” he laughs.

“Christian called?” I say, looking at my husband and back to Phil, who nods.

“He activated the contingency,” he adds.

“Without me?” Al says, also coming over and joining in the conversation.

“You were a bit detained, Mr. Forsythe-Fleming,” Christian excuses.

“I don’t want to hear it!” Al says flippantly. “God, I hate not being part of the conspiracy.”

“Steele,” Val chimes in with Elliot following her. “You got a little sister you never told me about?”

“Yeah, what’s up with Ana, Jr.?” Phil asks. “I thought I was seeing double for a minute… until I got a good look at her.” Maxie throws a knowing look at me and I wave her off.

“I certainly hope not,” I say with a shrug. It’s so damn unnerving to see so many people that look like me. Hell, my mother doesn’t even look like me—or I should say I don’t look like her. All I got was her hair… and her eyes, I think. God, I can’t even remember what color my mother’s eyes are. The siren wail of my son crying snaps me from my introspection.

“Don’t look now, but…” Phil points to Ana, Jr. and a screaming squirming Mikey in her arms, with her futilely attempting to calm him.

“Christian…” I say, my voice beseeching.

“Don’t worry, I got it,” he says. I watch as Christian makes his way over to Brian and… his girl. Mikey is feverishly reaching for his father on sight. Christian coos at Mikey, trying to calm him before rescuing him from the imposter—or maybe before rescuing the imposter from him—but Mikey can’t be calmed until he’s in Christian’s arms. Even while lying on Christian’s chest, he quietly babble-cries his protest of being handed to that woman. Good God, what the hell? It’s not that bad, Mikey.

“What is with all that performing?” I say to my son as Christian joins us, rubbing Mikey’s back and causing him to calm a bit. I see Brian out of my peripheral and, surprisingly, he’s not looking at me. He’s looking at Christian.

That’s a first.

Ana Jr., on the other hand, is looking a bit slighted.

“What is her name?” I whisper. He pauses.

“Sha…” he pauses again. “Shawna.”

“You had to think about it?” I ask, rubbing Mikey’s hair as he continues to whimper a bit.

“I don’t think about her much,” he says matter-of-factly. “Why would I let her name occupy mental real estate?” I nod. “Why did you want to know?”

“Because I keep calling her Ana, Jr., and it’s creeping me out. Her boyfriend didn’t bother introducing her to anybody. Who does that? And why are they even here? Did you invite them?” Christian shakes his head.

“My guess is that he heard about it from Ray,” Christian says. “I can understand him wanting to be here, but I have no idea why he brought her.” I raise my brow.

“She makes you uncomfortable,” I say.

 

“She makes me very uncomfortable,” he cedes.

“Why? Because she looks like me?”

“No, because of the implications of her looking like you. She looks so much like you that the Paparazzi could get a picture of her from a distance and think it’s you. So, here’s hoping that she’s as clean cut as she appears, because she could be trouble. She lives in the same state, for God’s sake.”

And suddenly, I’m wet.

“Oh, no,” I squeak. Christian looks over Mikey’s mop of hair and back at me.

“Crying baby,” I say, pointing to my leaking breasts. I hear Mandy laugh.

“I see you pointing at the food factory,” she says. “You need a shirt?”

“Yes, please, but duty calls first,” I say, pointing at my leaky jugs.

“Um, I don’t think…” Mandy does a circular gesture around her boobs, signaling that I’m probably going to be out of luck in the bra department.

“You got a sweatshirt?” I ask, and she nods. “I’ll be fine.”

We’re having this entire conversation in a room full of people. Ah, motherhood.

“I’ll take him,” I say, reaching for Mikey. Christian whines a bit at the thought of releasing him to me.

“Do you have milk in those?” I chastise, pointing at his pecks. He pouts and gently lifts Mikey off his shoulder. Mikey protests a bit but reaches out his grubby little hands when he sees that he’s being handed to me.

Then he quiets right down.

“I feel a bit slighted,” Christian complains.

“Oh, hush. He came to you first, and I have an advantage. Like I said, you don’t have milk in those things.” I stand on my tippy-toes and plant a quick kiss on his lips.

“Be right back after I feed our children,” I say.

“Okay, Butterfly.” I look around for Minnie and see that Gail has her and one of the diaper bags and she’s waiting for me.

“I’ll come with you,” Maxie says.

“Me, too,” Val chirps in, and I know they want to talk shit about Shawna. We all follow Mandy.

“I’ll have to set you up in our bedroom,” she says. “Harry’s asleep and not due to wake for another hour, but the commotion in the living room will wake him soon enough.” I nod. She has a small sitting area set up in their bedroom and I take a seat in one of the chairs while Gail settles into the other one and gets a bottle ready for Minnie. No sooner I open my shirt and Mikey is greedily pulling at my bra. He knows what’s under there.

“Settle down, you little monster,” I jest, quickly situating my nipple in his mouth. He hungrily slurps his lunch and I know that even though my boobs are full, they’ll both be empty in no time. “Geez, you’re worse than your father.”

“Too much information, Steele,” Val says. “Are you saying that he still indulges in the nipple even though you’re breastfeeding? I mean… does he drink it?” I now have the attention of every woman in the room.

“Like you said, Val, too much information,” I say, diverting the conversation from my boobs. Mandy laughs and hands me a large, clean sweatshirt.

“I’ll see you out there,” she says as she leaves the room. I turn back to Mikey who looks up at me with large, grateful gray eyes.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I say as I sit back in the seat.

“So, how long have you known about Ana, Jr.?” Val says. I shrug.

“Her name is Shawna—please stop calling her Ana, Jr. That shit is creeping me out,” I beseech them. “I seem to remember Christian saying something about her a while back, but you know my memory sucks and I only hold on to what’s important, so unfortunately, I don’t remember anything if he did tell me about her. But damn—this is some creepy Twilight Zone shit.”

“I’ll say,” Gail mumbles, and I think we weren’t supposed to hear her.

“Mikey sure as hell knew the difference,” I say looking down at my son. “He was having none of that shit when someone put him in her arms.”

“Didn’t that guy used to have a thing for you?” Maxie asks. “I seem to remember discussion about a terrible fight between him and Christian that landed them both in the hospital. Is this the same guy?”

“Same guy,” I say with a nod, trying not to show my discomfort.

“Don’t you think it’s a little… unsettling that he found someone that looks just like you? Not unsettling because she looks like you, but the fact that he found someone that looks just like you…”

“They’re both unsettling,” I reply. “Christian’s right. If he’s trying to recreate me in her, he’s in for a rude awakening because no two people are that much alike naturally. And I’ve already been through this with one psycho. I was chosen because I looked like someone else, so if she’s chosen because she looks like me…” I trail off.

“I take it nobody’s tried to talk to her,” Val asks.

“Nobody from my camp that I know of,” I respond. “If I know Christian, he’s said something to Brian and he’s just watching from afar. Why would he bring her here? To my father’s house? We’re celebrating my adoption. I barely want him here. Why would he think to bring her?”

“For moral support?” Maxie says.

“To show you that’s he’s moved on?” Val adds.

“Has he?” I squeak. “The girl is my goddamn twin! Is it really moving on if the person that you’re with looks just like the one that you left behind… supposedly?”

“Well,” Val interjects, “look at me. El’s my type. Most of the guys that I’ve dated pretty much look like him. All hot blondes, all pretty well-to-do and none owned sport cars. Maybe I’m not the best authority on this.”

“Yeah, same features, but none of the guys you’ve dated looked exactly alike, at least not while I’ve known you.” She shrugs.

“Yeah, there is that,” she concedes. I shake my head.

“He and Ray don’t see each other much. He probably just wanted his friend to meet his girl,” Maxie says, still playing devil’s advocate.

“This is my adoption,” I say, breaking Mikey’s suction on my now empty breast. Gail rises on cue. “He had to know I would be here. What did he expect—for me to say, ‘Hey, Dad, thanks for signing the papers. Bye now?’”

Gail swaps babies with me while I’m talking and begins to pat Mikey to get him to give up a burp while Minnie latches onto my other bulging tit.

“I know Christian didn’t tell him,” I continue, “so Daddy had to. It would have been awkward enough with just him showing up, but he brought a damn doppelganger to my adoption celebration!”

“Okay, so, just so I’m clear, are you upset that he’s here, that he brought a girl, or that the girl looks like you?” Val asks, bemused.

“The fact that he’s here and that he brought a girl that looks like me,” I answer. “The last time I saw that man, he thought it was a good idea to beat my husband until he literally couldn’t see and had to have his teeth fused. Believe me when I tell you that I couldn’t care less what that man does with his dick or who he does it with, but I do want to know what he’s trying to prove by bring that girl to my adoption.”

“I’m still not sure why you’re so upset,” Val says. “I can understand being perturbed by the whole thing, but you’re really pissed.”

“That’s because you’re missing two key words here. I keep saying them, but you keep missing them. My. Adoption. If it seems like I’m taking this personally, goddammit, I am! This is my celebration with my daddy. I can begrudgingly accept him showing up because he’s Daddy’s friend. I can’t and won’t condone him bringing an Ana-lookalike-doppelganger here during this time. The moment he discovered that this was going to be a party and not an intimate setting for him to introduce Daddy to his girlfriend, he should have excused himself and set a time for them to get together. He stayed because he knew it would unnerve me and it would unnerve Christian. I can shake my head and disapprove and judge how healthy or unhealthy his choice of woman is from afar. But when you invite yourself and her to my celebration and throw her in our faces knowing how we would react—yes, I’m pissed about that!”

Everyone in the room falls silent for a moment.

“Well, when you put it like that…” Val says and trails off. Finally! She gets it! This was a calculated move on that jerk’s part and nothing she can say can convince me otherwise.

“So, what now?” Maxie asks.

“I don’t know,” I reply. “I have nothing to say to either of them. I don’t believe for one second that she walked into this blind, so she’s just as guilty as he is as far as I’m concerned. Then she has the nerve to try to hold my damn baby…” I trail off angrily. I don’t know what’s irritating me so badly about the situation. All I know is that I wish they would both just leave.

It’s time to change the subject.

“Are you getting settled into the office okay?” I ask Maxie. She raises her brow at me.

“I had never been to your office,” she says. “I had no idea how ‘pimped out’ it was!” I laugh.

“It’s not pimped out. You’re just accustomed to the offices at the family center,” I tell her.

“Well, it’s pimped out to me. We never decided on rent.” I shrug.

“I don’t know what to charge a friend. Make me an offer.” She twists her lips.

“A beautiful office near downtown and you don’t know what to charge?” she asks.

“ A wonderful friend and mentor who was my therapist for many years and several times kept me from leaping off the proverbial cliff? No, I don’t,” I reply matter-of-factly. She makes that face where you tighten your chin.

“Well, since you put it that way,” she says, “I do some research on the rents in the area.”

“Good, then cut it in half.” She twists her lips at me. “Family and friends discount,” I add.

“Fine,” she says begrudgingly.

*-*

Once Minnie and Mikey have been fed, burped, changed and put down for a nap, the girls rejoin the party as I sneak off to the laundry room to wash my blouse and bra. God, my tits feel so much better now that they’re empty! Jesus, these jugs are getting out of hand!

As I’m about to step out of the laundry room, I hear voices and peak out to see who’s there. Brian and Shawna are having a not-so-pleasant conversation in the hallway that leads from the kitchen to the laundry room.

Shit. Trapped.

“They hate me!” Shawna says, her voice low and sharp. “They all hate me. Even the baby hates me! Did you see how he screamed? Babies love me, and he screamed!”

“They don’t hate you, Sha,” Brian says. “They just don’t know you…”

“I don’t want to know any of them!” she retorts. “They’re all ‘one big happy,’ and I’m some intruder that comes in looking like their diamond child. Most of them started talking to me thinking I was her. One guy turned fifty shades of pale when he discovered that he was talking to the wrong person! Why did you bring me here?”

“Because you’re an important part of my life and I wanted you to meet Ray, who’s also an important part of my life.”

“Why did we have to come today?” she whines. “Why couldn’t we come up on the weekend or something?”

“Believe it or not, I was trying to avoid running into the family!” he defends. “Who the hell would expect the whole damn clan to be here on a goddamn Monday morning?”

I can tell that he was talking more to himself than to Shawna when he asked the question.

“It’s an adoption, Bri,” Shawna says, pointing out the obvious. “It’s a family affair.”

“Yeah, but I know Ray. I know they probably had lunch or something planned just for him and his daughter. Then he would come back here, or even go to work, and Mandy would have called him and told him that we were here. Then he would have come back and we all would have relaxed and chewed the fat. But of course, Grey…”

He trails off. Oh, no. Don’t act like it’s my husband’s fault that you brought the Counterfeit Contessa here and we didn’t welcome her with open arms.

“When can we leave?” she pouts. “Ray and Amanda are the only ones who have been nice to me. Everybody else is looking at me like an alien—when they’re not mistaking me for her. Unlike the rest of the female population of Washington, I have no desire to be Anastasia Grey!”

Well! Don’t get all hissy about it. You’re in my father’s house, and nobody’s stopping you from leaving.

“I don’t want to be rude,” Brian says, matter-of-factly. “We’ll leave right after lunch. Can you tolerate that?” I hear her sigh loudly.

“When we get home, I’m cutting my hair and dyeing it red!” Shawna declares.

“Baby, you could shave it bald. I wouldn’t care. I’d still love you,” Brian says. I roll my eyes. Oh, good grief. It would be cute… if it were anybody else.

“Stop being sweet,” she pouts. “I’m still not comfortable here at all.”

“I know, baby. I’m sorry,” and he sounds sincere. I wait for a minute or two after there’s silence in the hallway to poke my head out.

The coast is clear. Thank God!

I go into the kitchen with Ms. Solomon and the staff, doing the final preparations on the meal.

“Can I help?” I ask. The room falls silent for a moment, then Ms. Solomon engages.

“Mrs. Grey, this is your lunch… you and your father…”

“I’d be eternally grateful if you would allow me to help with something—anything, instead of going through that door right now.” She raises her eyes.

“She’s unnerving, isn’t she?” Ms. Solomon asks, and I don’t even try to deny it.

“More than you can imagine,” I say, commandeering Mandy’s apron and waiting for instructions. Ms. Solomon hands me a knife.

“There’s nothing left to do but the salad,” she says, pointing to a huge mountain of vegetables.

“Thank you,” I reply, “Leave it to me…”

By the time I’m done, I’ve created three beautiful salads in about fifteen minutes… one Greek, one Caesar, and one antipasto.

“You’ve been holding out on me!” Ms. Solomon says. “I had no idea you had this kind of skill. And that knife! The staff was afraid to come near you!” I laugh.

“Before we had a staff, I had that gourmet kitchen built for me,” I confess.

“Nothing left to do but serve,” she says. I sigh.

“I’ll take the salads out and go sit down,” I say. I take two of the large salads and one of the other servers grabs the third. When we enter the dining room, Christian immediately spots me.

“Lunch is ready,” I announce, placing the two large salads in the middle of Mandy’s formal dining table.

“That’s where you got off to,” Christian says, leading the charge into the dining room. “I didn’t even see you go in there.”

“Nobody did,” I say, keeping my eyes on the salad while arranging them on the table. “I just wanted to help out.” Christian looks knowingly at me. “I hope you don’t mind, Mandy. I borrowed your apron.”

“Not at all, whatever makes you feel happy,” she replies. The staff begins to fill the table with the hot food and sets everything up buffet style since there’s really no formal seating. Everyone begins to dig in and I, for some reason, am still organizing things on the table—removing dishes as they’re emptied and helping the staff refill platters with more food, helping with drinks…

“You really should sit. This is your celebration after all.”

I turn to see that nearly everyone has left the table and is sitting somewhere with a plate of food—everyone except me, that is, and the voice that’s telling me to sit is Brian’s.

“I will,” I say, even more feverishly cleaning and adjusting things on the table. “In the meantime, go, eat.” Shoo, for Christ’s sake. You’re making this awkward enough just being here.

“I didn’t get a chance to congratulate you,” he says, still trying to make small talk. “Ray is very happy. He was like a kid at Christmas when you suggested it.” Oh, dear Lord.

“Yeah, I’m happy, too. It should’ve happened years ago,” I reply, trying not to be rude.

“Has your mother called?” he continues. “How does she feel about it?” Just as I’m about to respond…

“Wrong woman,” Christian says, appearing behind me. Brian raises his eyes.

“You’re awfully paranoid, aren’t you, Christian?” Brian says.

“No, I’m not,” Christian replies. “You told me to stay out of your business, and I have. This…” He puts his hand on my shoulder, “… is not your business. This is mine. Yours is over there.” He points to Shawna, tucked away in a corner talking to Mandy. “I just thought you might have gotten them confused.”

“You’re still stuck on that?” Brian taunts.

“Is everything okay, guys?” Daddy asks, noting the tension between Brian and Christian even though there are no raised voices.

“Oh, yeah, everything’s fine,” Christian says. “We were just discussing the uncanny resemblance between our significant others.”

Oh, shit. There’s the fucking gauntlet. The room falls silent, and there’s that mouse pissing on cotton.

“You really want to do this now, Grey?” Brian threatens.

“I’m not doing anything, Brian,” Christian says. “We struck a deal, and you’re breaking it right now. You said stay away from you and stay out of your business and I am. The same goes for you… she’s over there,” he repeats pointing to Shawna.

You can see the fury rising in Brian’s face. Christian hasn’t really done anything wrong, but you can clearly see that Brian feels violated by the announcement.

“You did that deliberately to make my girlfriend uncomfortable,” Brian accuses.

“Are you blind?” Christian asks. “That poor girl was uncomfortable when Mikey started screaming in her arms. I simply thought you just may have mistaken my wife for her since you have absolutely no business with my wife, so I was just pointing you in the right direction.” Brian’s face is getting redder and redder by the second and his ears look like they’re just going to melt off his head. That’s when Elliot steps into the conversation.

“Look, dude,” Elliot says, “I don’t know you. I don’t know anything about you and I don’t mean you any offense, but it’s the elephant in the room, man. Ask her, half of us started talking to her thinking she was Montana. She’s a beautiful girl, but she looks like Montana.”

Brian frowns at Elliot, probably because he doesn’t know who the hell Montana is, but you can tell that he’s still furious and wants his pound of flesh. So, he turns around and looks at my father.

“Do you know about his lifestyle?” Brian says aloud to my father. “Do you know what they do—what he does to your daughter?”

What the fuck?? This is the same shit that happened that day years ago at the Greys—the same fucking shit! It’s Elena Lincoln all back over again. I’m horrified.

“Yes, Brian, I do know,” my father says, stone-faced. “My daughter told me awhile back. She tells me everything.” Well, maybe not everything, but he knows about this. Brian’s eyes widen and Daddy sighs.

“You’re my friend, Brian, and I miss you terribly, but it wasn’t your place to make that announcement in front of a room full of people. Christian didn’t do anything foul. He didn’t reveal any of your secrets or expose you in any way. He made a statement of fact… she looks like my daughter.”

Brian deflates immediately, and Shawna looks completely mortified.

“You’re right,” Brian says, his voice somber. “I’m sorry.” He looks over at me and Christian. “Really, I’m sorry.”

Christian squeezes my arms and I just drop my gaze.

“I knew about your feelings for my daughter long before you told me about them, but I thought it was just a crush. The fact that you know this much about her private life tells me that it’s much more than that,” Daddy accuses.

“It was,” Brian admits. “I wanted to be sure that she was safe, that she wasn’t doing anything against her will… that she was happy… and yes, at one point, I wanted her for myself, but that’s not the case anymore.”

“Isn’t it?” Daddy accuses, gesturing to Shawna, who shrinks a bit. I can see her in my mind’s eye making an appointment with a hairdresser before they even leave Seattle. She’ll be a ginger in no time.

“No, Ray, it’s not, I swear,” Brian says. “I’ll admit that I was initially drawn to Shawna because of her physical appearance, but that’s because she’s my type. And she already knows that she reminded me of Ana when I first met her—I was completely open and honest with her about that. But these two women are only physically similar. They couldn’t be more different. I love Shawna because of the woman that she is, not because of how much like Ana she looks. Believe me, Ray, had I known that it was going to be a big family party, I would have planned my visit differently—showed up later maybe…”

“I think that’s a good idea,” Daddy says, and Brian freezes. “I want to catch up with you. I want to get to know Shawna better, but now isn’t the time. Whatever the current situation is between you and my daughter and her husband, you all don’t mix well together. It’s bad news when you’re all in the same room. Why don’t you go back to your hotel and we can all meet for dinner—just like old times, just… with our ladies, okay?” Brian smiles.

“That’s sounds great,” he says to my father. They shake hands and hug. Shawna has abandoned her conversation and her lunch and joined Brian. When Daddy and Brian release, Daddy leans down and kisses Shawna chastely on the cheek while holding her forearms, causing her to sink a bit in relief, and Brian turns to me and Christian, his lips forming a thin line.

I feel like Christian now. I just want him to leave us alone, forever. If you’re happy with Shawna, be happy with Shawna, and just leave us alone.

Instead, he makes his way over to us. Christian immediately grasps my arms with both hands.

“I really am sorry,” Brian says to me as he approaches us. I turn my head. Jesus, I don’t even know what to say to this man. “Really, man, I am,” he adds.

“We heard you,” Christian says, his voice crisp. Brian lingers for a few moments more before walking back over to Shawna and Daddy. They exchange words that I can’t hear. Then he kisses Mandy on the cheek, exchanging words with her as well before taking Shawna’s hand and leading her to the door. I turn around and face Christian.

“He’s going to retaliate,” I say, dismally.

“I don’t think so,” he replies. “He knows that if he hurts me, he’ll hurt you, Ray, our children… He’s a selfish bastard, but I really don’t think he wants to do that.” I sigh and lay my head on his chest as he wraps his arms around me.

“I hope you’re right,” I respond.

Time stands still for a moment or two, or five, or ninety, as I contemplate what could be in store for my family at the hands of a slighted Brian Cholometes. I watch in somewhat suspended animation as Christian makes his way over to Daddy and they have a conversation, no doubt about what just transpired. I wrap my arms around my body, using my hands to try to warm myself from the chill that has come over me. I don’t even see Maxie when she comes over to me.

“Jesus, Ana, what was that all about?” I turn an uncertain gaze to her. I don’t know what to tell her, but I know what I’m not telling her. Her brown furrows.

“What was Brian talking about?” she asks, her voice serious. “What did he mean by what he does to your daughter?

And there’s the Maxine that showed up at my house with the court order to have me committed when I was catatonic. Oh, hell no—no time for weakness now. I pull myself up to my full height, ready to face off with my friend if I must.

“I’m. Not. Talking about it,” I say, my voice controlled. “It’s my personal business, and the fact that he blurted it out without my permission doesn’t mean that I have to disclose it to anybody.” Maxie examines me for a moment.

“Duly noted,” she says coolly. “Can I please just ask you one question?”

“I can’t guarantee I’m going to answer it,” I reply.

“You’re not being hurt or abused, are you?” she asks. “You’re not doing anything against your will?”

“That’s two questions, and I’ll answer them both. Absolutely not. Father of my children, husband, money, good looks—none of that matters. I would never stay in a position like that. I work at a battered women’s shelter, for God’s sake!” Maxie nods quickly.

“I know. I know. I know Christian wouldn’t hurt you like that. He loves you too much. It’s just… you’re my friend and I get kind of blind to logic when… you know what I mean.” My defense mechanism releases and my guard drops back to normal. I touch her arm.

“Yes, Maxie, I know what you mean,” I reply, softly.

“Besides,” she adds, “your Marine dad would have killed him by now. If it’s okay with Ray, I guess it should be okay with me.”

And just like that, the mood lightens.

I try to enjoy the rest of the celebration, playing silly games with my father and family, eating the good food prepared by my staff. Grace excuses herself and goes back to Helping Hands right after lunch and the rest of the party starts to dwindle as the afternoon moves on. I wanted to see what kind of progress there was on my office but decide against it.

When it’s time to go, Gail and Keri go to gather the twins and I get a little bit of playtime with my little brother who finally decided to join us. When he grows weary of his big sister, I go to retrieve my bra and shirt from the laundry. Once I’ve changed and dropped Mandy’s sweatshirt into the hamper, I swipe the screen on my phone. I know his number is the same, so I text him.

**We won’t bother you. We’ll leave you alone, I promise. Please, leave us alone. **

I press my phone to my chest, sending up a silent prayer that nothing befalls me and my family because Brian feels slighted. I never wanted him. I never even led him on. I feel that I shouldn’t have come to him when I needed help. I never should have let him in or given him any opportunity to be a part of my life at all. While I’m lost in my lamenting, I get a text that puts my fears to rest.

**Okay. Be happy. **


CHRISTIAN

Hearing that Cholometes intends to leave my family alone last night was music to my fucking ears. I don’t have to be in the guy’s business; he’s not that important to me. My only concern is that he doesn’t sneak in when I’m not looking and launch an attack on my wife. Because he doesn’t matter, I’ll stay out of his business. Because I don’t trust him, I’m still keeping an eye on him.

My wife was remiss to tell me that she had texted him after the “Seeing Double Scandal” at her father’s house, and I could see why. There are just too many ways that situation could have played out, especially after that semi-threatening email he sent to her after his last visit. That fell dead in the water, thank God, but I still can’t help but feel like there was an ulterior motive for him bringing that Ana Twin to Ray’s house.

So, I’m keeping an eye on him.

The time difference in England made it impossible to know what time was good to call John. So, I decided to forego my morning run to get in touch with him.

“I loved it there. Now, not so much. It’s not like my son is Typhoid Mary. They know what this is… America just didn’t know what it was at first, and now, they do.”

“I understand how you feel, John, but leaving the country completely? Is that smart? What about your citizenship and that of your family?”

“It’s a bit of a mess with the visas unless we want to relinquish our U.S. citizenship. I’m sure that Rhian doesn’t want that. I could honestly go either way. England is my home, so I don’t have the same trouble with immigration that they do, and I was never naturalized, so I didn’t give up my English citizenship.” I frown.

“You’ve been here all this time on a visa?” I ask.

“They wanted me to denounce my English citizenship. I wouldn’t do it,” he replies.

“So, what you’re saying is that your family would live indefinitely on visas there in England like you did here.”

“It depends on what we decide to do, but yes. As long as Rhian can prove that she won’t be a financial burden, they can all stay here indefinitely as long as we renew their visas. And to be honest, the school system here is looking better than the US. The children get more physical activity during the day. They look forward to going to school… I’m just quite disenchanted with the States at the moment, Christian. I’ve decided that we’re going to stay here right now for at least a year. I hate to leave Grace and my patients in such a bad position, but as you know, family comes first.”

“You don’t have to explain that to me, John,” I assure him. “You’ve just given me and my family a reason to visit England.” He chuckles.

“How’s married life treating you?” he probes. “You’re not my patient anymore, so I’m no longer privy to these little intimate details.” I sigh.

“It’s an experience,” I admit. “Some days, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world. Other days, I sit back and wonder what the hell I’ve gotten myself into. And the twins…!” I trail off.

“Oh, yes! Marriage and fatherhood all in the same year! I forgot about that,” he declares.

“I certainly didn’t!” I exclaim. “I watched my wife scold my daughter for the first time this weekend and it was fucking torture! She literally threatened my life if I interfered!”

“She threatened your life?” John laughs shamelessly. “Tell me that’s a joke!”

“It’s not!” I confirm. “I tried to comfort my child and she told me to leave her alone or she would kill me!” John laughs loudly and freely into the phone. “I’m so glad you’re enjoying this.”

“In my professional opinion,” he chuckles, “you and Ana sound like you’re right on track with this marriage/parenthood thing.” I sigh.

“I don’t know,” I admit. “We’ve had some pretty big bumps as of late.” John’s laughter fades.

“Anything you wish to discuss?” John asks. “Not as your shrink—as your friend who happens to be a shrink.” I sigh again. How would Butterfly feel about this? The truth is that I need all the help I can get, and he is my friend. Differing viewpoints may actually help, and if I can’t get a handle on my role in Butterfly’s mood changes and developments, I’m going to consult Ace for some additional guidance.

“You don’t mind?” I ask, cautiously. I did fire the man after all.

“Like I said, we’re friends. I won’t even start the clock on you…”

I talk to John for two full hours, spilling my guts about every little thing that’s bothering me, every little kink in the armor that is our marriage—my massive fuck-ups; the whole broken trust issue between me and Butterfly; my wife’s bipolar-type reactions to bad situations… one moment she’s all Zen and the next moment it’s the apocalypse. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m coming or going. We switch roles at the drop of a dime where she has to hold everything together and I’m falling apart—like Detroit—or I have to be the pillar and she’s falling off into the pit of oblivion—like Sunday and the viewing session.

Luckily for me, John wore the friend hat more than he wore the shrink hat, although he did wear the shrink hat. I needed them both. Jason fills one of those roles while Dr. Baker fills the other, but I really needed them both to help me get back on track with what I need to do to constructively and effectively deal with the varying situations involving my wife and myself. It’s ironic that I called to check on John trying to help him and he ended up helping me.

I send my beautiful wife and our adorable children off to Helping Hands while I head into the office to catch up on whatever I may have missed on this super-long weekend. Capito is trying to discredit me among businesses in Madrid, so I assume that the government or someone higher up may be getting a cut of his human trafficking operation since nothing has been done about it yet. Maybe a different approach is needed…

“What has come from the Capito situation?” I ask Alex. “He’s spreading false propaganda about me abroad and I need it nipped. I have some business deals in the works in Madrid and I don’t need him pissing on them if it can be avoided.”

“It can be avoided. Let me make some calls and see what progress there is. These things take time, unfortunately, but I’m sure there are some fires I can light,” Alex responds.

“Good, the sooner, the better.” I end the call and proceed through the massive amount of emails that have accumulated over the last few days. It’s amazing to me that one person can accumulate hundreds of emails per day. Even with my sorting function, I still have to try to review each email to see if there’s something that went to junk mail that shouldn’t have.

“Sir…” Andrea’s disembodied voice from the intercom interrupts my review just after noon.

“Yes?’

“I have Terry Smalls on line three. He’s in charge of organizing the items in your grandfather’s storage facility in Detroit. He insists on speaking to you now. He says it’s urgent.” Oh, fuck. What’s in the goddamn storage facility?

“Thanks, Andrea.” I pick up the call on three. “Grey.”

“Mr. Grey, this is Terry Smalls, sir. I’m managing the team that’s organizing the contents of your grandfather’s storage unit.”

“Yes, Mr. Smalls, what can I do for you?” I ask.

“I just want to apprise you of a couple of developments, the first of which is that each box has a label that indicates its contents can be identified by a log on file in the management office. None of us are authorized to access any records in the management office, so I was wondering if you could make a call and tell them that I can take a look at that log. It would cut our work time loading, unloading, and at the warehouse more than in half and it will also alert us ahead of time if there’s anything particularly fragile in any of the boxes.” I nod.

“Excellent news. I’ll have my uncle call the storage facility as soon as possible. We may be spared from opening many of those boxes before we ship them back to Seattle.” Some of them may not have to be shipped at all if Uncle Herman decides to allow Uncle Stan to keep some of it, which I know that he will.

“You said a couple of developments. Are there more?”

“One more, sir. As we started to remove the higher levels of boxes, we realized that they’re stacked to the ceiling, but they’re only three layers deep. The storage facility isn’t full of boxes.”

“Well, that’s good news,” I say. “It wasn’t as full as we thought it was.”

“No, it’s full, it’s just not full of boxes.” I frown.

“What do you mean?” I press.

“Well, after the boxes, there’s some furniture—real antique valuable stuff… and a car.” Huh?

“You mean, model cars, right?” He must be talking about the model set that Pops was giving to Dad.

“Um, no sir, I mean a car—an automobile, a classic Mustang from what I can see.”

“What?” I exclaim. “What kind of condition is it in?”

“Well, it’s under a tarp, but if the tires and the part of the bumper that I can see is any indication, it’s been restored.” Fuck me.

“A classic Mustang. Fuck…” I hear someone call Terry’s name in the background.

“I’m on the phone with the boss!” he shouts back to whomever is calling him.

“Then you might want to tell him to hold on and come look at this. We might have some more news for him.” Shit, what the hell now?

I hear rustling and jingling, like the clatter of keys.

“You’re shitting me,” I hear Smalls say.

“Smalls?” I call out, but he doesn’t answer. I hear wind and movement, like he’s walking. “Smalls?” Still no answer. Guess I’ll just have to wait. A few moments later, he comes back on the line.

“We may have another… Oh, hell.”

“Um, that’s not a good sound, Smalls,” I warn.

“Sir, if your Uncle has the authority to speak to the management here, please tell him to find out exactly how many storage bins your grandfather has. We found at least two more.” Oh, dear God.

“Two… are they full?” I ask. I listen as I hear the sound of a rolling door opening.

“More antique furniture, sir, really high-end stuff from what I can tell… and yes, this one is full. We have to figure out where the third one is, but it would help if we had authority to speak in detail to management.” I sigh.

“I’m on it. Tell your guys to take a break or something and let me call my uncle. Give me your direct number.” I end the call with Smalls and immediately call Uncle Herman.

“Christian, hey. How’s the move going?” he answers.

“That’s why I’m calling you, Uncle,” I begin. “It appears that there’s more than one storage bin down there…”

“I knew it!” he interrupts. “I knew it! Unless he got rid of a whole lot, I knew all of Dad’s stuff couldn’t fit in that one storage bin.”

“Well, there are two more that we know of, and my people have only found one… and Uncle Herman, there’s a car in the first one.” Silence.

“A car?!” he exclaims. “You mean like a real life, living, breathing automobile?” Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but…

“According to my staff, we were looking at a few rows of stacked boxes hiding a restored classic Mustang.”

“Shit… he did it. I didn’t think he would do it, but he did,” Uncle Herman says.

“Who did what?” I ask.

“My dad wanted a classic Mustang,” he says. “I knew he had been looking at one that was in the process of being restored years ago, but I didn’t know that he bought it.” I nod as if he could see me.

“Well, he bought it, and it’s in that storage facility. My people found a second—lots of antique furniture—and mentioned that there’s a third. I don’t know how they located keys, I didn’t get that far. My guy also says that there’s some kind of itemized list filed with management, but that he doesn’t have access to it, so he needs you to call them and see if he can get a copy of it.”

“Well, they already have my authority on file down there. I faxed them my documents yesterday. I’ll give them a call. What’s your guy’s name?”

“Terry Smalls.” Once I give him Terry’s number, I call Terry back.

“Terry Smalls here,” he answers.

“Smalls, my uncle is calling the management office now, so you may want to go on over there. I’ve given him your number as well in case he needs to talk to you. His name is Herman Grey. Keep me abreast of any further developments.” And speaking of developments…

“Sir…” Andrea’s voice interrupts me again.

“Smalls, I have to go. Keep me informed.”

“Yes, sir.” We end the call. “Yes, Andrea?”

“Sir, I have Antamonides Capito on the line. He’s quite perturbed and he’s being very insistent and belligerent.” That was fast.

“Is he now?” I say, showing little interest. “What line is he on?”

“Line one, sir.” She sounds exasperated.

“Thank you. Leave him there.”

“Sir?” Now, she’s bemused.

“Leave him there. See how long he holds. Let me know when he disconnects and if he calls back, put him on hold the moment you hear his voice.” There’s a pause.

“Yes, sir.”

I’ll talk to him… when I’m ready. This immediate call at nearly 11pm Madrid time means that Alex has hit a soft spot hard proving once again just how valuable he is. So, I’m going to let the asshole squirm for a bit. I hope he was fucking when he got the call.

I take my time reviewing two more acquisitions that we have on the table. I even have a meeting with Ros and Lorenz about our other Spanish deals while the fucker calls me five more times this afternoon. Ros questions what’s going on.

“Capito is trying to spread venom on my name with other companies in Madrid. I can’t just come out and say that he’s into illegal activities without endless repercussion… possible slander suits, dangerous consequences for myself and others—including quickly eliminating inventory, if you know what I mean…” Ros shivers.

“So, what has him calling like a desperate housewife searching for a wayward husband?” Lorenz asks.

“Our head of security has amazing connections,” I inform him. “Sometimes, you have to pluck a few cock feathers to show him that he’s still nothing more than a chicken.” Lorenz stifles a laugh and Ros just shakes her head.

And Capito calls again.

*-*

Ch 50 Capito

Antamonides Capito

“It’s the end of my day and I’m leaving my office to join my family. What do you want?”

Around five thirty when I’m ready to go home, I finally take Capito’s call, nearly four hours—and nine attempts—after his first call.

“You Americans think you are so smart, so invincible—your so-called power means nothing to Madrid!” he hisses into the line.

“Then why are you calling me?” I taunt. “It appears that we have nothing to discuss.”

“You know people in high places,” he replies. “I know people in high places, too.”

“And apparently, some of those people have been talking to you, haven’t they, Capito?”

“Do not push me, Mr. Grey. You do not know how far my reach is.”

“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong,” I correct him, having gotten updated intelligence from Alex earlier this afternoon. I’ve got this fucker by the balls and he doesn’t even know it, but he’s about to.

“I know about your extracurricular activities, Mr. Capito, and I now know who your associates are. I know why you didn’t want to release and why you didn’t want me to visit Albien Textiles, and now you know why I chose not to do business with you. I tried to walk away quietly, but you threw down the gauntlet. My wealth is my reputation, and I refuse to let some small-time, wannabe thug dabbling in illegal activities of which he has no full comprehension start badmouthing me in the Madrid market because I wouldn’t play in his little sandbox!”

Capito is silent. I can almost hear the shock and awe on his face through the phone.

“I may not know who all you’re dancing with, Capito, but trust me—I’m familiar with your most prevalent bedfellows. And I know that a few extra dollars means nothing to them in comparison to the risk of exposure. Am I right?” More silence.

“Name your price,” he says flatly. Foolish little Spanish man…

“I don’t have a price, Capito, only a demand. Stay. The Fuck. Out of my affairs. And keep my name out of your mouth or you will find out just how powerful this American really is.”

“Sí, señor,” he says, after a pause.

“And in case you get any ideas, if anything befalls me or my family, I’m holding you personally responsible. I’ve already got documents and contingency plans in place in the event of my disappearance or sudden demise. If they’re implemented, there’s nowhere in the world that you would be able to hide from the authorities or your associates, including your panic cave in the Congo.” I hear him gasp.

“How did…?” He catches himself before he finishes his question. “Sí, señor.”

“You and I have no business, Capito. Walk away. Don’t speak of me again and don’t contact me again, unless you’re declaring war. And believe me, I’m prepared for it.” I end the call before he’s able to give me another “Sí, señor.”

I’m exhausted. Smalls informed me that they’re cataloguing all the antique furniture and he’ll contact me tomorrow with a detailed list to find out what we want to do with it. I’ll ask Butterfly if she wants anything, but I doubt it. I’m sure Uncle Herman will want to split it between the family members that want it—except Freeman. I close my laptop and rub my eyes. I don’t want to go to bed early tonight, but it may be in the cards for me. I’m beat.

Jason meets me in the lobby and as we’re heading to the parking garage, an official-looking gentleman standing by a black Mercedes parked in front of my building catches my attention. My brow furrows and I get Jason’s attention.

“What’s this?” I say gesturing to the front door. Jason looks, then speaks into his earpiece.

“Vic, J.R., come with me,” he says, and two of the security staff behind the desk rise. The three of them walk out the front door and Jason approaches the guard standing near the car. He doesn’t appear to be engaging Jason at all… which means that Jason isn’t who he’s looking for.

He’s looking for someone else… at this hour, probably me.

“Oh, dear God,” I say, stepping behind the wall near the information desk. I press a code into the wall and duck into a door there. Having practiced this many times, I’ve got this routine down to less than a minute. I remove my coat and jacket and quickly don a bullet-proof vest with a built-in holster. Since my Glock is in the locked glovebox, I retrieve one of the M9 Berettas from the security arsenal and quickly load a magazine in it. After putting it in the holster, I put my coat back on and walk out the front door.

“Sir!” Jason says in surprise when he hears the doors open. The guard at the car moves towards the door and every person on my staff reaches inside their coats. I stand still waiting to see who’s in the car. I’m stunned nearly to silence by who steps out the back seat.

“Mr. Grey,” he says, gesturing to the door. “Join me.” You have got to be fucking kidding me! Will this goddamn day never fucking end?

“Oh, hell, no!” I declare. “Shoot me now!”


A/N: Now, the question is… who the hell did Christian see?

I’m aware that the person that I chose to represent Capito is not Spanish, but that’s my choice—because I hated that guy in John Wick 2.

Pictures of places, cars, fashion, etc., can be found at https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/raising-grey/

The new question and answer thread is always open for questions about the story. be sure to read it and please adhere to the rules when asking questions. You can find it on the left, second from last in the menu our you can click HERE.

You can join my mailing list on the “Contact Me” page. Just click the link and it will lead you to a form to join the list.

 ~~love and handcuffs

 

 

 

 

 

Raising Grey: Chapter 48—’Round and ‘Round… and ‘Round

THE MUSE HAS GONE CRAZY!!!!

So, unless the layout and the flow of the story as I see it changes somehow, you can expect for “Raising” to be longer than the typical 80 chapters. I may find a place where I can break the story and start a new book, but if it’s flowing well and there’s nowhere for a cohesive time break, I’ll just keep it going.

HOWEVER…

Golden is currently on hold because Lynn is overwhelmed. I still know where I want it to go, and it’s definitely going to be a shorter story than the Butterfly Saga, but if I can’t give my best, I’m not giving anything at all, and the nuances of the story aren’t flowing as well as I would like with all that I have on my plate. So, Golden fans, I apologize for not updating as much as I should, but I can only do so much at once.

My darling Falala, you are the only one who has indicated that they’ve had that problem with having to re-follow the blog. I hope that’s not a trend and I hope you haven’t had further problems. Anybody else having any issues? I got two emails that said, “falalax is now following your blog.” I was like, “Huh? I thought she was already following my blog. Gotta love the world wide web…

This is a work of creativity. As such, you may see words, concepts, scenes, actions, behaviors, pictures, implements, and people that may or may not be socially acceptable and/or offensive. If you are sensitive to adverse and alternative subject matter of any kind, please do not proceed, because I guarantee you’ll find it here. You have been warned. Read at your own risk.

I do not own Fifty Shades Trilogy, or the characters. They belong to E. L. James. I am only exercising my right to exploit, abuse, and mangle the characters to MY discretion in MY story in MY interpretation as a fan. If something that I say displeases you, please, just leave. If you don’t like this story or me, please don’t spoil this experience for everyone. Just go away. For the rest of you, the saga continues…

Chapter 48—’Round and ‘Round

ANASTASIA

I take a quick shower and change into something more suitable for travel. When I exit the bathroom, I’m headed towards the living room area when I hear Christian’s voice.

“Hi, little man. Daddy loves you. Take care of the house until I get back, okay?”

I back away from the doorway so as not to interrupt his cooing time with the Prince of Grey Crossing.

“I miss you, Mikey. I miss you so much and I love you. Take care of your sister for me…”

I can imagine that seeing his father and brothers in such turmoil is causing his emotions to flip like crazy. I hear silence for a moment, then I hear,

“Hey Lelliot… yeah, it’s done. It was brutal, man… Listen, you know when I’m giving you shit, I’m just giving you shit, right? I don’t mean anything by it… Yeah, it’s just…” He sighs. “This place, man—this place fucks with me, and watching Freeman and Dad… Just know that I love you, man. I’ll always be there for you even when you act like a fucking jerk, but don’t act like a fucking jerk, okay?… Yeah, yeah, I know. It’s the whole married thing, I guess.”

I’d love to know what Elliot said that elicited that response.

“I’m ready to get out of here. Nothing is jogging any memories with me, but this place seems to bring out the worst in my family and I’m ready to shake it off… She didn’t go to the reading with us, which I’m glad that she didn’t. If Freeman had said anything to my wife…” He trails off. “Having her here has been a tremendous comfort for me though. She dropped everything just to be here and sit in a hotel room while the Grey brothers battled it out… Dad’s at Uncle Stanley’s with Uncle Herman. They’re going through the contents of a safe deposit box that Pops had at Chase Bank. Apparently, Uncle Herman’s name was on it, too, but he didn’t know until we went to the bank today. It was a big fucker with another big box inside, and they decided that they didn’t want to go through it in the bank in case—you know—there’s sentimental shit in there. Dad broke down in the car after the reading…”

He didn’t tell me that part.

“Well, I’m just waiting for the go-ahead from Jason that the jet is ready, and from Dad that he’s ready, and we’ll be the fuck out of here.”

I begin making noise and moving around because my entrance right when he ends the call will look very suspicious. I make sure that we haven’t left anything—toiletries in the bathroom, things in the drawers or nightstand. I wonder if Jason and Christian got everything from the first room.

“Okay, man, I’ll see you when I get back… I love you, Lelliot.” Christian ends his call when he sees me puttering around the room.

“How’s Elliot?” I ask. “Is everything okay?” I reach in my purse for pink lipstick and apply it to my lips.

“Yeah, everything’s fine,” he says, coming into the bedroom. “I just wanted to touch bases with him, you know, after our last conversation.” I put my lipstick away and raise my eyes to him.

“This has been hard for you, hasn’t it?” I ask, my brow furrowed.

“In more ways than one,” he admits, his hand pushing through his hair. “Pops is gone. He’s not coming back. Why wouldn’t the brothers pull together during this time? Bury the hatchet and kill all the ill feelings? Yeah, Uncle Stan and Dad and Uncle Herman are clinging to each other like glue, but Freeman…” He raises his head. “Freeman is a monster. On my worst days—back when I didn’t give a fuck about anything or anybody—I could never treat Elliot that way… never!” I gently touch his cheek.

“Of course, you wouldn’t,” I say softly. “Freeman is a broken man. He’s miserable inside and there’s no telling how long he’s been that way, so he makes it his business to make everyone else as miserable as he is.” Christian shakes his head.

“That sounds a lot like you’re making excuses for his behavior, baby,” he says. I twist my lips.

“No,” I reply matter-of-factly. “I’m a psychiatrist. I’m just shrinking him. All I’m saying is that hurt people hurt people, and he never got over his hurt. It just festered and festered until it made him the miserable human being that he is now.”

“Yeah, that sounds more like Freeman. Rotten ass bastard.”

Christian and I sit in the room for several more minutes. We’ve got the room reserved for two nights, just in case something happens, and we need to stay another day, even though we both—no doubt—silently hope that won’t be the case. Just after Christian gets word that the jet and pilot will be all set and on standby in the next thirty minutes he gets a call from his father. His voice is accommodating, but his facial expression shows deep displeasure.

“What is it?” I ask when he ends the call. He doesn’t respond. He just calls Jason.

“Meet us downstairs,” he says. So, we’re leaving. “There was a key to a storage facility among the things in the safe deposit box. Dad asked that we bring the truck in case there’s a lot of shit in there.”

What? It’s nearly nightfall! So… we’re not leaving.

I sigh heavily. This is not what I was hoping to hear. Not only is Maria supposed to be coming into town this weekend so that we can view the interview, but I miss my babies and I want to go home. This place is fucking with my goddamn chi!

“Come on, baby,” my husband says as he ends the call. “I don’t care what’s in that storage bin. We’ll be on that plane tonight.”

Music to my ears.

*-*

The storage facility is in a city called Oak Park, just on this side of Detroit. A code activates the large sliding gate and we drive to Burt’s storage bin.

It’s huge. We’ll be here all night.

Christian tells me to stay warm in the car, but I refuse. I want to see what’s in there, too. I get out of the car and follow my unhappy husband to the rolling door of the storage bin. Herman removes the lock and rolls the door up. We all stare at the contents in dismay.

Boxes. Lots and lots of boxes. This is going to take days to go through, not hours. Maybe even weeks. Herman sighs.

“My father’s whole life is probably in this thing,” he laments. “He probably had the monthly rents coming off a credit card or something. It’s still not closed.”

“Jesus, I forgot all about this,” Stan says. Herman and Carrick look at him. “When you guys went to Washington, Dad had the house packed up. I saw some of what was happening, but I didn’t see everything. I didn’t even stick around for most of it. I never even knew what happened to the key. When Dad died…” Stan gestures to the stuffed storage unit, “… this was the last thing on my mind. I’m sorry, guys.”

“No need for that, Stan,” Carrick says, squeezing his brother’s shoulder. “We were all a bit rudderless when Dad died. It would have come out eventually… and it did. I assume Freeman didn’t know anything about it or it would be empty by now.” Stan shrugs.

“I don’t know… I guess not. I didn’t keep it a secret from him or anything. You know how either you’re involved in the action or you’re not and if you’re not, you don’t have any information?”

Carrick and Herman nod.

“So, what do you want to do?” Stan asks. “The office is closed, so we can’t talk to anybody right now.”

“It wouldn’t matter,” Herman says. “I didn’t think to bring Dad’s death certificate with me or my executor documents. I thought we were just reading the will.” He rubs the back of his neck.

“It’s your call, Herm,” Carrick says. “Dad says you disperse the stuff as you see fit.”

“That was the safe deposit box,” Herman says.

“And the key to the storage facility was in the safe deposit box,” Carrick points out. “By extension, that means the storage facility, too.”

“We’ll support whatever you want to do, Herm,” Stan says, looking at Carrick, and Carrick nods. Herman sighs again.

“Mom’s jewelry was in the safe deposit box. Those model cars are most likely in there,” he says, pointing to the wall of boxes. Now Carrick sighs.

“What do you want to do?” he says, his voice soft, and I can tell that whatever “those model cars” are, they mean a lot to him.

“We have to go through this stuff, guys,” Herman says. “This is Dad’s stuff. We can’t just dispose of it, but I can’t do this now. I need to regroup in the worst way, and I know you guys do, too.” He looks at the boxes in front of him. “These boxes are sealed well, and I didn’t bring anything to cut them open.” He rubs his face.

“I’ll call the storage facility in the morning,” he continues, “find out what kind of arrangement my dad had with them and get them a copy of the death certificate and such,” he sighs. “But right now, I need my Luma.”

I know what that means. We’re going home.

“You go home, Herm,” Stan says, putting his hand on Herman’s shoulder. “I know exactly how you feel.”

“Yeah,” Carrick chokes, rubbing the back of his neck. “Me, too.” Christian reaches over and takes my hand in his, bringing his lips to my temple.

“Me, three,” he says against my forehead. Herman closes and locks the storage facility and we all head back to the cars. Stanley says his goodbyes and gets into his car while the rest of us get into the two rentals. Jason and Carrick have a quick conversation before we take off for the airport.

Now, I don’t know Michigan very well, but I know enough to know that we are driving back in the direction that we came from… away from the airport. My husband realizes it, too.

“Jason, where are we going?” Christian asks.

“Mr. Grey asked me to follow him. I thought he had already spoken to you,” Jason says, occasionally glancing into the rear mirror. I look over at Christian who doesn’t look pleased.

“My dad wouldn’t lead us into danger,” he says, “but next time, consult with me first.” Jason’s ears pinken.

“Yes, sir,” he says. “My apologies, sir. I, um, took the liberty of arranging for dinner options to be served on the flight, sir,” he adds. Christian nods, somewhat appeased by the gesture.

“Good man,” he says, and sits back in his seat. “I just don’t want anything to delay us getting the hell out of here,” he adds, more to himself than to anyone else.

We turn down an expressway labelled “I-696” and head west. I know we’re not headed back to Stanley’s house, because his house is further north. Christian squeezes my hand a bit as we drive down 696 for a few minutes, not comfortable at all not knowing where we’re going. After a few more minutes, we connect to another expressway called “I-275” and head south. I know that the airport is south, but we had to go through Detroit to get there. Now, I’m curious.

I gently nudge my hand from Christian’s and pull out my phone. Opening Google maps, I enter our current location—696 and 275, Michigan. It’s a spaghetti bowl of freeways, but I can make out what direction we’re headed. I’m seeing a lot of the streets on the map that I saw when we were headed to Stanley’s house, but we’re in the suburbs now where before, we clearly were not. From the scenery and my husband’s reaction, we were in Detroit.

Further satisfying my curiosity, I enter our destination—DTW.

Google maps shows me that we should be at the airport in thirty minutes. It’s a straight shot down the I-275 to the I-94 and we’re there. It also showed me the route Carrick drove before… I-94 east to the 39—Southfield Freeway—and right through Detroit.

Carrick found another way to the airport that didn’t take us through Detroit. I sigh.

“What is it?” Christian asks. I hand him my phone. He examines it carefully and his shoulders fall. The tension he was carrying moments earlier has slid off his shoulders and back and he almost looks like a totally different man.

“I’m… sorry, Jason,” he says, surprising both me and Jason.

“Sir?” he says, his eyes darting from the road to the mirror and back.

“My father…” Christian trails off. “We’re taking a detour to the airport—one that avoids Detroit.” Realization dawns on Jason’s face.

“Oh,” he says, softly. “No apology necessary, Boss. You were right, I still should have said something to you.” Christian nods and lays his head back on the seat. I take his hand and we ride in silence—and comfort—to the airport.

*-*

“After you talk to the management at the storage facility, I can arrange for the things in storage to be shipped to Seattle,” Christian says to Herman during dinner on the flight. “We can put the things in storage here and you can go through it at your leisure. I can even arrange for my shipping staff to go through the boxes and catalog everything in my warehouse if you like. It’s such a daunting task and if that storage facility is filled to the ceiling with boxes, you can be guaranteed that Pops had someone doing something like that.”

“He did,” Herman says after swallowing a mouthful of steak. “I had forgotten that right after we moved to Seattle, Dad had the house packed up. It didn’t even occur to me.” Christian frowns.

“You two stayed in that house before you moved to Seattle?” he asks. Herman nods.

“It wasn’t as bad as you think,” he says. “The house doesn’t look like much now, but Dad kept it up the best he could. Seriously, Christian, it seems like the minute we left, the house deteriorated. It was like it was holding on for Dad and when he left, it just gave up and died.”

Wow, that’s somewhat profound.

“Well, what do you say?” Christian presses. “I can have a crew in there probably as early as Tuesday. Depending on what’s in there, they can probably have that stuff cleaned up, packed up, and on its way back here by day’s end.” Herman pauses then looks at Carrick. “I would only trust staff who have seen me personally. So, I would send a crew directly from here.”  Dad nods at Herman.

“I think I may have to take you up on that, Christian,” he says. “Let me talk to Stan and see how he feels about it and I’ll let you know, okay?” Christian nods and tucks into his food. We all eat in relative silence until the meal is over, after which, the flight attendant brings us all drinks. A few minutes later, Jason is quietly reading, and Herman has reclined his seat and fallen quickly into a nap. Christian excuses himself and heads to the back of the plane. I assume he’s going to the restroom. Carrick has moved to a lone seat on the other side up the plane and is staring out the window at the black night sky. He doesn’t even notice when I take the seat across from him.

“How are you holding up?” I ask, breaking his solace. In my professional opinion, it’s not a very good idea for him to be sitting here mulling over the day’s events alone, especially since Christian said he broke down earlier.

“Isn’t it a terrible weight on your shoulders to be the ear for the entire family?” he says, his smile soft. I shrug.

“It’s what I do,” I reply, “and I’d rather do it for my family than some of the losers I’ve had to listen to over the years.”

“That’s not very professional,” he says, raising a brow at me.

“No, it’s not,” I admit, “but it’s true. I’ve had some real losers over the years.” My mind immediately goes to those attention whores at the community center who pretended to need help, but only wanted someone to whine to. “It’s why I stopped doing volunteer work at the community center. Those people didn’t need help—true, they needed therapy, but not the type that I was offering.” I shrug.

“I thought you left the community center for an entirely different reason altogether,” he confronts, and I know he’s talking about my initial battle with his son.

“That, too,” I confess, “but that wasn’t the reason. That was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.” I sigh. “So, as you can see, listening to family is not as daunting as you think.” He nods and looks out the window again.

“I feel like I’ve cremated my father again,” he says. Whoa, that serious. “I went through all these feelings and the hatred that Freeman feels for me, being back in the city where we grew up, seeing the places where my father worked—he was so proud. He was proud to be a Ford man, and he passed that down to our family, but I didn’t want to be a Ford man. I wanted to be a lawyer. More than anything, I wanted to be an attorney and throw around that word ‘Esquire.’” He laughs mirthlessly.

“Dad never gave me a hard time—not once. He paid for me to go to college. He mostly paid for law school. Then, I met Grace. She insisted on paying for the rest, telling me that she was investing in our future together. Dad had a problem with it at first, but once we were married, he understood.

“Our lives took several turns, and Dad was there the whole time. We always held each other together, all of us. Freeman wasn’t always a miserable bastard. He was always miserable and selfish, but he wasn’t always a bastard. Even he was there to help hold us together, especially when Mom died. But after that girl left him…” He shakes his head.

“Now, I’m here again. I hated going back to that place and I hated the reason I was there. If Christian hadn’t convinced me to come, I wouldn’t have. Now, I’m glad that I did, because if I hadn’t, Freeman would have gotten over again, and Herm and Stan wouldn’t have their money.”

He’s correctly assuming that Christian has told me about the life insurance. I want to keep him talking until he gets as much of this anger and pain off his shoulders as he can.

“Is it true that he can hold the money up for a long time and affect everyone’s share?” I ask. Carrick does a half-nod, half wobble of his head.

“The only thing that’s going to effect everyone’s share of the money is Dad’s final arrangements,” he says. “Once that’s dispersed, then it’s the waiting game to see how far Freeman wants to take this. But he’s not holding anybody up but himself, because my brothers got their money already… from me. Once he loses this fight, which he will, the remainder of the money after Dad’s affairs are settled will be dispersed to the sons, and Freeman will have gotten the short end of the stick.”

“How so?” I ask. “If all the sons are getting the same amount, even after Burt’s final arrangements and whatnot, that’s still going to be a hefty sum for each of you.”

“This is what that idiot doesn’t understand, and this is why I let him go ahead and do this. I’m one of my father’s four sons and all his sons got a portion of this policy. Now, if he was contesting that Herman and I were the only beneficiaries, I could get where he was coming from and halfway understand him contesting that—but we all got an equal portion of it. This was clearly Dad’s wish. Now, here he is contesting my portion knowing but not knowing that he’s actually contesting the entire policy.

“So, let’s say that he loses the contest, which I’m sure that he will. He will have spent time and money on an attorney to contest the beneficiaries of this policy. Let’s say that he only spends $200,000 in attorney, court, and probate fees and five years contesting the will…”

Only?

“He has now wasted five years of his life, done irreparable damage to the relationships that he had left with his family, and now, he gets to replace the $200,000 that he spent on a worthless fight out of his share of the money. Only, $200,000 in five years is not going to be worth what $200,000 is worth now. So, while my brothers can invest my portion of the inheritance and double their money if they choose the right investments, Freeman’s share is dwindling away to nothing… and speaking of nothing…

“If he gets his way and he wins this contest, he foolishly thinks that he’s going to walk away with a larger share and I—or Herm and I—are going to walk away with nothing. No, if he wins, he’s contesting the validity of the entire policy. He said so at the reading. He first declared that I didn’t deserve anything, then he paints a picture to Stan and tries to get the attorney to cosign that Herm and I brought Dad out to Seattle to die and got a life insurance policy in his name. I don’t know how long my father had that policy, so if he’s right and that policy popped up right about the time that Dad was about to die, it’s going to look suspect. He can’t protest me being a beneficiary because all four of us are beneficiaries, so he’s going to resort to that.

“Well, dear brother,” he says sarcastically, “if you win that fight, you’re not going to walk away with any of the money… none of us are!”

Shit, really?

“So, if he can convince a judge or whoever that you all bought the policy and waited for Burt to die, then nobody gets anything?” Carrick shakes his head.

“Not a nickel,” he confirms. “It’s fraud. The good news is that they would have to actively prove that we did that in order to press criminal charges, but I’m certain that the minute this goes before anybody with an ounce of common sense, they’re going to see right through it, and some unscrupulous attorney somewhere is going to take the case and let the fees mount up knowing that not only is this an unwinnable situation, but also that Freeman is going to get his share of that money. And when he does, he’s going to have to pay up if he hasn’t already.

“So, when I saw what he was doing, I immediately had the money transferred to my brothers’ accounts. I wanted Freeman to see what I was doing. I wanted him to see that I wasn’t going to allow him to ruin my brothers’ lives and what’s more, I don’t even need the money. One point five million dollars just flying around the room in a matter of minutes. What better way to foil your plans than with the very thing that makes your stomach turn?”

I’m making an observation that I’m not sure Carrick has made, but I can see it clearly.

“You refer to Herman and Stanley as your brothers,” I tell him, “but when you talk about Freeman, you don’t, unless you’re doing it sarcastically. You do realize that he’s still your brother, don’t you?” Carrick shakes his head sadly.

“Make no mistake, dear girl,” Carrick begins, “I know that man was born my brother, but my brother’s been gone for a really long time, and I miss him terribly. I’ve missed him ever since he left, even more so now that my father’s gone. When I cried in Seattle after our fight, it was because I knew that my brother was gone for good and he was never coming back. He came to my home and insulted my entire family—my wife, my children, you…” He trails off and shakes his head. “No, that man is truly dead to me. He was already a non-entity as far as I was concerned, but after today, after this…” He wipes away a tear. “I cremated my father again today, and I buried my brother.”

And now he’s broken again.

I sit there with Carrick for a long while as he weeps silently and mourns the loss of his family once again. When Christian finally emerges from the rear of the plane, he’s changed and freshly showered, no doubt washing the visit off him once and for all. He frowns questioning when he sees his father crying. Not willing to subject Carrick to Christian’s endless “What’s wrong” questions, I squeeze his hand to get his attention.

“Carrick, why don’t you go on into the back room and rest?” I suggest. “We’ll wake you when it’s time to land.” Carrick nods and stands from his seat. He walks to the back of the plane, nearly bumping into Christian on the way. Christian just grabs his arm to steady him, then squeezes his shoulder as he passes by.

“What’s wrong with Dad?” he asks once Carrick has left the room. “Is he okay?” I sigh heavily.

“It’s a good thing we’re leaving Detroit,” I say. “That place was taxing on all of you.”


CHRISTIAN

I spend the night buried in my wife again, so glad to be home in my own bed in my own city where I somewhat feel like myself again. I had intended on maybe getting some mile-high loving when I was finished with my shower on the plane, but Dad looked like shit and definitely needed some sleep. He didn’t wake until it was time to land.

We all seemed to have gotten back to ourselves once the jet landed at SeaTac. I didn’t expect to see the women there, but there they were. Dad wrapped himself around Mom and Uncle Herman just folded over Luma. My uncle is so in love with that woman. I don’t know why he won’t just marry her already.

I felt like I was falling asleep in the car on the way back to the Crossing. Chuck and Jason were whispering about something and I didn’t bother trying to eavesdrop. I was so relaxed being back in Seattle, back in one of my own cars, back home…

When we drove up the driveway into the Crossing, it was like someone hit me with a shot of adrenaline and all I wanted to do was fuck—not necessarily rabbit fucking or hard fucking… just fuck. So, fuck we did.

And I slept like a damn baby until noon.

When I wake, my wife is gone—well, not gone, just not in bed. It’s noon, why would she still be in bed? I sincerely stretch like a cat and lie eagle-spread on my bed—my bed. I can’t believe how content I am to be home… just to be here. My body relaxes into the mattress and I could truly just lay here all day. My solace is interrupted by one of the best interruptions ever. My wife unceremoniously enters the room with a wiggly pink bundle in her arms. They were asleep when we got home, so we didn’t wake them.

“Oh, please… give me that,” I say, sitting up and reaching for my daughter. My wife pauses.

“Are you dressed under there?” she asks.

“No, I’m totally commando, and she’s nine months old!” I protest.

“Yes, but Keri and Gail are not,” she retorts, raising her brow. I grunt and get out of bed. So much for lying in. I go to the dressing room and quickly slide into a pair of sweat pants.

“There!” I say, emerging from the dressing room. “Now give me my child!” I hold my hands out again and Minnie squirms in her mother’s arms, smiling widely and reaching for me. Butterfly laughs and places her in my hands. Good Lord, it’s like salve on a terribly stinging and painful burn.

“How’s Daddy’s girl?” I say, kissing her repeatedly and climbing back into bed. She coos and giggles as Keri enters with Mikey and Gail enters with a tray of food.

“I thought I would have to wake you, so I thought the twins might ease the ache a bit,” Butterfly says, placing Mikey on the bed next to me.

“I just woke, but you were right about the ache,” I say, adoring the smiling faces of my children.

“Let me know if you need anything else,” Gail says as she and Keri excuse themselves. I’m starving, but I don’t want to put my daughter down. I need her. I need to be close to my children. As if reading my thoughts, my wife begins feeding me the omelet and toast on my plate.

“You’ve already eaten?” I ask after swallowing, noting that there’s no food for her.

“Hours ago,” she says. “The trip sucked, but it wasn’t as taxing on me as it was on you.” I nod.

“I don’t know what I would have done if you weren’t there,” I admit. She puts another large forkful of eggs in my mouth.

“Jack off?” she teases and I almost choke. She hands me a glass of orange juice and I take a couple of healthy swallows.

“Not just the sex,” I say with mirth. “Going to sleep with you and waking up with you; eating breakfast with you and just know that you were there.”

“I know what you meant. I was just teasing you.” She gives me more omelet and toast. “That place is draining—or maybe it was just seeing the effect that it had on you and Carrick and his brothers, but I’m glad we’re home.”

“Me, too,” I say, swallowing the delicious eggs. It immediately makes me think of the egg massacre incident that was my first cooking lesson. I need to get back in the kitchen soon if I want to cook something for my wife anytime soon. “What’s the plan for today?”

“Not a thing on the agenda until tomorrow,” she says. Yeah, Maria Sanchez is coming into town so that we can view the interview. For some reason, I’m not looking forward to this even though it was my idea in the first place, but what’s done is done now.

“Well, I think I want to spend time with these two today.” Minnie is laying on my chest, wide awake, but just lounging there. Mikey has pulled himself into a standing position, supporting himself on my leg. He appears to be babbling something to Minnie, no more than “ba-ba-ba” or “na-na-na” or something like that, but she is unfazed and just watching her brother’s performance. Mikey is not to be ignored. He continues his babbling, now bouncing and becoming more animated.

Minnie still doesn’t respond.

Mikey is getting louder with his babbling and bouncing even harder. His sister finally gives him the attention he’s seeking. She pulls her little grubby hand back and brings it down right on top of his head.

Smack!

“Oh!” I exclaim. “They’re doing that now.”

“No!” Butterfly scolds, pointing her finger at Minnie. Mikey is silent for three seconds, just long enough for the sensation to set in, before he falls down on his butt and releases a yowl. Minnie sticks her bottom lip out, gazing at her mother, then her yowling begins a second after Mikey’s.

“Oh, there, there, now,” I say, patting her on the back.

Don’t do that, Christian!” my wife scolds. I’m a bit stunned. Don’t do what?

“Put her down,” she says, her face stern and her voice firm.

“What? Why? She’s crying,” I point out as if it’s not obvious.

“Yes, that’s because I scolded her. Now, put her down.” Okay, fine, don’t scold me. I put my daughter on the bed and her cries become more urgent. “Do not hit your brother!” Butterfly says to a wailing Minnie before turning to me. “If you coddle her after I scold her, she’s going to run to you every time I try to punish her. She’ll be impossible, and then I have to kill you!” I put my hands up.

“Okay, okay, I get it!” I say. “But what about Mikey? Clearly he was yelling at her…”

“And clearly, she slapped the shit out of him, and now, he’s crying, too. That’s why I’m not picking him up, either.” She’s got a point there. I sit there helplessly watching my children cry as they learn a lesson, also learning a lesson myself. This is hard. I hate to see them cry. Butterfly allows them to cry for what feels like forever, but I’m certain that it’s only a couple of minutes.

“Are you two ready to behave?” she says to our children, and almost like they understood what she said, their cries subside a bit, but don’t cease. She folds her arms and looks from Minnie to Mikey.

“I can wait as long as you can,” she says. Minnie calms a bit, her plump tearstained face gazing at her mother as she begins her after-crying sniffles. Mikey calms a little thereafter, but only after he shoves his two middle fingers into his mouth. My brow furrows.

“When did he start doing that?” I say, pointing at my son.

“Since about three months,” Butterfly responds. “He just doesn’t do it all the time.” Both children have calmed now, and Butterfly turns to Minnie. “Are you going to behave now?” she asks. Minnie just looks at her. She holds her hands out and Minnie scurries to her arms, laying on her chest like she was laying on mine a moment ago.

“Get your son,” she says as she rubs Minnie’s back. I hold my arms out to Mikey and he stretches his hands out to me, trying to come to me without the aid of his arms to help him stand or roll. He’s quickly getting frustrated and I don’t want him to start crying again, so I pick him up and sit him on my leg. Using my fingers, I gently wipe the tears from his face.

“Don’t use your hands,” she says, softly, leaning over to the rolling tray and retrieving a burping cloth. She hands it to me and I begin to wipe my son’s face.

“She’s a real tyrant,” I tell him, low enough for only him to hear. “If you ever cross her, you’re on your own… but don’t cross her. I don’t like it when you cry.” I clean his face and put him on my chest where his sister was moments before. They look at each other as if challenging each other. They can’t be fighting this early. And they’re twins! I thought twins were inseparable!

“And this from the man who’s a proponent of spanking,” she says with a smirk while patting Minnie on the back. I look up at her and she raises her brow at me. Oh, yeah, I did say something like that, didn’t I?

Hmm, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do that.

“We… may have to come up with alternative methods of discipline,” I say without making eye-contact with my wife.

*-*

The thought of spanking my two little bundles had me clinging to them all day. Watching them cry and being unable to stop them was a bit more than I was willing to accept. Maybe once they’re older and ornerier, I might feel differently about the concept, but right now, I can’t even fathom it.

My clinginess doesn’t get past my wife. She even makes a papoose for me from one of her belly wraps so that one of the babies could be close to me the entire day. I think I needed it. Detroit took a lot out of me. Sure, I didn’t fall apart except for the mini-meltdown during the trip from the airport. I even did okay going to the private-eye’s office, which was in a city that was in the middle of Detroit. But the entire experience was just taxing as hell.

Seeing Dad and his brother snarling at each other like dogs…

The emotional strain of being in a city that broke me completely at an early age and could have broken me forever…

Watching my father break down all over again from the loss of his father and the total decimation of his relationship with Freeman…

No matter how much he may hate what that man is doing, he’s still Dad’s brother and this is truly taking a toll on him. How can anybody be so hateful towards their own family?

My mind immediately goes to Chuck’s brother, Joe, and a trip he has to make to his hometown for a lawsuit against his own flesh and blood merely for being an asshole.

Good God, are people really this unbelievably asinine? Was I ever this way? I may have been aloof, a bit obtuse at times, but I was never deliberately vicious to my family… never intentionally hurtful. For the love of God, who does that? I pull my phone out of my pocket and press speed dial.

“Hey, Bro, what’s up?” Elliot answers.

“Hey, what are you and Valerie doing for dinner?” I ask.

“Nothing,” he says. “We were probably going to order something in. We’ve gotten spoiled to having a cook,” he jests.

“Well, why don’t you come on over and get spoiled some more?” I say.

“You guys just got back. I thought you might have wanted to unwind and relax a bit. We didn’t want to be underfoot… I know how you feel about Detroit and all.”

How do I tell my brother that I need to see him without sounding like a pussy?

“Yeah, well, the familiar is kind of necessary right now.” That was it. Perfect. He pauses again.

“What time should we be there?” he asks. I sigh quietly.

“Six is good, and can you call Mia for me and see if she and Ethan can make it? I’ve kinda got my hands full with the babies.” He pauses again.

“Sure thing, Bro. We’ll be there.”

My brother and sister arrive promptly at 5:45, and I can’t help but wonder what Elliot said to Mia to get her to dinner on time. We sit down to a dinner of baked pork chops, Brussel sprouts and tomato-bacon linguini. I can’t bring myself to remove my papoose just yet, so Mikey sleeps comfortably on my chest throughout the meal while Minnie “purrs” nearby in her Pack-n-Play.

“Oh, everyone,” Mia begins, “our wedding website went live this morning.”

“Wedding website?” Butterfly asks. Mia nods.

“Yes. I wanted to approve everything that went onto the site, so they had to wait until we got back from the honeymoon to make it active.”

Oh, dear God.

“Mia…” I begin.

“Keep your shirt on, Big Brother,” she says. “The only media that is posted of you and Her Highness…” she says Butterfly’s nickname in a playful manner, “… are pictures and videos of you dancing, a bit of canoodling, her speech, and the two of you singing. Do you want me to take any of those down?” I look over at Butterfly who shrugs.

“Send me the link and I’ll let you know,” I say. Mia laughs.

“I sent you the link this morning,” she says. “You never go a day without checking your email. What gives?”

“I was spending time with my family,” I reply. “I’ll check it later.”

“I’m sure it’s fine, Christian,” Butterfly says. “We have an exposé airing soon. It can’t be any more intrusive than that.”

“Oh, yeah, I forgot about that. When is that supposed to be aired?” Elliot asks.

“The journalist who interviewed us is coming tomorrow morning so that we can see the final viewing, and we’re supposed to be part of Sweeps Week,” I say.

“Sweeps Week?” Valerie says. “That starts a week from Monday. Isn’t that cutting it kind of close?”

“Kind of?” Butterfly says. “Don’t get me started. If I see something that I don’t like tomorrow, they’ll have to scrap the whole damn thing!”

“You seem a bit intense about this, Steele,” Valerie says. Why does she still call her that?

“Well, that would be due to the faux pas that have already occurred, and the damn thing hasn’t even aired yet!”

Oh, hell. Butterfly isn’t very happy about this viewing, it appears. I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a good idea. Should I tell Maria to send us a digital copy to review instead?

“What kind of faux pas, Montana?” Elliot asks. Butterfly begins to explain our experience with the grip boy and the “preview that got away,” when Valerie turns her attention to me.

“Elliot tells me that you convinced him to tell me about Gia,” Valerie says while Butterfly occupies Elliot with her tale.

“It… was a collaborative effort between me and my wife,” I admit.

“Well… thank you,” she says. “That would have been something terrible to hear through the society grapevine or on a gossip rag or something.” I raise a brow.

“Have you met Gia?” I ask. She shakes her head.

“No,” she admits, “but I’ve heard of her. Her reputation precedes her. I don’t know what her general M-O is—there usually is one for appearing to be a scathing whore who will fuck anything with a dollar sign attached to it—but hell, she could just be mindlessly sleeping around, I don’t know. Whatever the case may be, I’m aware of Ms. Mateo’s character.” She sips whatever is in her glass.

“Are you… concerned about her?” I ask. “Because Elliot loves you more than life.”

“I know that,” she smiles. “It’s why he thought there was no need to tell me about her. I have no doubt the she’s old news as far as he’s concerned, but there are some things that you just need to hear from your man and not from some gossiping cows at the beauty shop or out in the grocery store somewhere or heaven forbid, at some social function where you have to smile and pretend it doesn’t bother you. It’s the Miller mansion, for Christ’s sake. Somebody somewhere is going to say something. Hell, they may end up in Architectural Digest or something. Then what?”

“Alright, Bro, my wife’s face is not looking too pleased over there. What are you talking about?” I raise an eyebrow at Valerie who shrugs.

Architectural Digest,” I reply. Well, we were. Elliot frowns.

Architectural Digest?” he repeats. “Your face is all frowned up about Architectural Digest?” She nods.

“I was just telling Christian that your work on the Miller mansion may end up in Architectural Digest,” she says with no malice. Elliot’s face falls and he turns to me. I hold my hands up in surrender, shaking my hands to signal that I didn’t start this conversation. He closes his eyes and nods.

“Yeah, it could,” he admits. “Does it bother you, Angel?”

“No,” Valerie replies. “It doesn’t. I think you’ll do great.” She reaches for his hand and he entwines his fingers with hers.

“I’m sorry,” Mia says, “but if I may ask, why would Val have a problem with you being in Architectural Digest? Isn’t that an esteemed honor?”

“Yes, it is,” Elliot replies, “but the designer on the project is Gia Mateo.” Mia looks at him as if she’s waiting for the punchline. Then the penny drops.

“Oh,” she says almost inaudibly. “Oh… o-okay.” And she doesn’t say anything else. Ethan leans in and no doubt, asks about the punchline, and she hushes him quickly.

“It’s fine,” Valerie says. “I’m just glad that I heard about their prior relationship from Elliot and not some third party. That’s all I was telling Christian.”

“Well, I’m glad she didn’t really get her claws into my brother,” Mia nearly hisses. “She’s an A-1 skank and she’s lucky some jealous wife hasn’t plugged her one by now!” Butterfly looks over at me and raises her brow.

“Okay, I’m all for changing the subject now,” I say. Mia looks at me and realization dawns.

“Oh!” she says, pointing at me. “Oh, yeah! That’s right!”

“What?” Valerie says. “Please tell me not you, too. That’s just trashy!” Oh, good grief.

“No, not him, too,” Butterfly interjects. “But that lovely parlor and the his and hers bathrooms and those beautiful women’s touches that you see all over the Slayer? Courtesy of one Gia Mateo.”

“Oh, I see,” says Valerie. “Well, that explains a lot. I was wondering why a floating bachelor pad had a fully pimped-out she-cave on the main deck. No offense, El, but I was wondering how she managed to bed you and not capture the attention of my billionaire brother-in-law.” Elliot puts his hand on his chest in mock insult.

“Whatever are you trying to imply?” he asks. “I’m just as good a catch as my loaded little brother.” Valerie smiles.

“Better, baby,” she says, snuggling up to his arm.

“Balderdash!” Butterfly chimes in. “She has to say that! She’s your wife!”

“And you have to disagree, because you’re his,” Elliot taunts. “Nice papoose, bro,” he teases, causing an outburst of laughter and instantly breaking the tension in the room.

Thank God!


ANASTASIA

As I’m getting ready for bed, I’m mentally cataloging all the things that I’ll have to do in the next few days when I realize that I’ve forgotten to disclose one detrimental piece of information to my husband.

“There’s something I need to tell you,” I say as I climb into bed with him. He raises his gaze from the phone to meet mine. “I found out last week, but with the Detroit trip coming up, I knew you needed to focus.”

“What is it?” he says, placing his phone on the nightstand.

“It’s about John.” Christian’s brow furrows.

“John Flynn?” he asks. I nod. “What about John?”

“He and his family are in England, and they may not be returning to the States.”

“What?” he responds, clearly displeased. “Why?”

I explain to him what Grace told me about MERS and the CDC and the government not wanting his son to return until he has a clean bill of health.

“Well, then, I’ll give him a call. We’ll get him the best doctors and get him well so that he and his family can come home.”

“I don’t think it’s the money, Christian,” I tell him. “I think it’s the principal. John may have become a citizen from marrying Rhian, but his sons are all American-born citizens and one of them is being denied re-entry. He’s quite disenchanted with that.” Christian’s expression softens, and he nods.

“I guess I would be, too,” he says. “I’ll call him anyway and see if there’s anything that I can do, but from what you’re saying, America may have lost a few citizens.” I nod.

“Yeah, it looks that way.”

Christian and I make love again a few times that night, and I know that we’re not only making up for lost time, but my husband is also trying to regain some of the control that has slipped away from him over the past couple of weeks. Pretty soon, I’m going to have to tap out. I don’t think my coochie can take much more.

“I don’t think the promo has gotten to many outlets,” Vee says on Sunday morning. We asked her to join us for breakfast so that we could be prepared for when Maria shows up with the footage of our interview. “We’re usually alerted when something airs about you guys for purposes of damage control. This thing must have truly only aired once and then it was pulled. We can’t even get a lead on where it aired.”

“And it’s not like I can go knocking on Old Lady Miller’s door and ask her where she saw it,” Christian points out.

“It’s kind of a moot point,” I add. “With sweeps being next week, whatever we approve will be splashed all over the network in promos. If there’s anyone in America who didn’t know who we were before now, they’ll know soon.” Christian finishes his eggs and bacon.

“Well,” he says, after swallowing his last bite, “how do we handle this? I already know that there’s no way that she’s going to show us a final cut that we’re going to be completely satisfied with. I almost want Allen to be present for the meeting, but I’m not trying to intimidate her to the point of pulling the segment.” Vee nods.

“No, we don’t want to do that, but we do want her to know that we mean business. We need to get a copy of what she shows us and what she plans to air. They have to be the same thing. Once something makes it to the airwaves, it’s immortalized. At one time, it wasn’t that way, but with technology being what it is today, your most embarrassing, humiliating, or painful moment could be trending on Twitter or Instagram tomorrow.” I sigh.

“Well, why trust anybody, then?” I ask. God knows I’ve had my own run-ins with reputable members of the press—the ex-submissive cable girl and the Pussy DJ, just to name a couple.

“Because you have to trust someone or remain in obscurity. That’s the name of the game,” Vee says. “Anyway, it’s like I said, I really think the leak was just somebody jumping the gun for Sweeps Week promotion and remember—she didn’t have to bring that shit to you that Roger, or whatever his name was, did. She could have swept that mess under the rug and you never would have been the wiser. It’s a testament to her integrity.”

“Or she could have been covering her ass,” I retort, skeptically. “If that footage had somehow gotten out later, she would have to account for how it was acquired.”

“She could claim ignorance,” Vee counters.

“It’s her production. Responsibility is assumed. I know that much,” I conclude. Vee twists her lips and nods her head.

“Ana, would you prefer this doesn’t air?” she asks. I turn my gaze to her.

“What?” I ask, bemused. Vee sighs.

“I understand a healthy dose of skepticism,” she begins. “In fact, when it comes to an exposé of the most intimate parts of your life—your home, your family, your children, what you do in your private time—I would be concerned if you didn’t show some level of trepidation. But you have disputed nearly every point I’ve tried to make so far when it comes to this viewing and anything that I’ve said in any possible defense of Maria and her actions. I’ve been in this business for a long time and I’d like to believe that my instincts aren’t dull or untrustworthy when it comes to people. I haven’t steered you wrong yet, but I can’t ignore your level of mistrust and discomfort the closer we get to the time to meet with Sanchez. I won’t try to force or influence you to do anything that you feel uncomfortable with no matter how good my instincts may be. So, I’m asking you honestly before this woman gets here. Would you prefer this doesn’t air?”

Christian and Vee examine me closely like they’re expecting and alien to pop out of my chest or something. I don’t want to pull the plug on the production this close to airing, but there’s something that I can’t sweep under the rug.

“I. Have had a bad time. Trusting people,” I say, looking only at Vee. “My instincts are not as sharp as I once thought they were. When I look back on all the things that I thought I was certain of that turned out to be something completely different, I have nothing left in the end but, ‘Shit, I wish I had seen that coming.’ People seem one way  when you meet them, when you deal with them, when you interact with them, and when you put your fate in their hands—on a large or a small scale—one way or another, you end up getting burned.

“I’m just trying not to get burned,” I tell her. “I’m trying to see the fire before it explodes through the forest and consumes my home. Twice, somebody has dropped the ball—grip boy and now this. We should have seen this footage weeks ago…” although that might have been a bit difficult with my husband hiding out in Madrid. My scar starts thumping a bit and I stick my hand in my hair and drop my head.

“I just don’t want to get burned again, okay?” I say without raising my gaze to anyone. “One more incident, and you can put an apple in my mouth and serve me up at a luau.”

There’s a long moment of silence.

“Ana, do you trust me?” Vee says, and now, the spotlight is on me. I sigh.

“Yes, Vee, I trust you,” I say, honestly, deflated and still not raising my head.

“Good. Then let’s see the viewing and see how we feel. I won’t pull any punches if I think something’s not right. I swear that to you.” I nod.

“Okay,” I cede. I don’t want to debate it anymore. I guess I won’t be able to shake the feeling until I see the viewing and in what light Maria has presented us. There’s another long moment of silence.

“Mac, can you excuse us for a moment? I need to talk to my wife,” Christian says softly.

“Sure,” I hear her say, and I don’t know where she goes, but I know that she leaves the dining room.

“Butterfly look at me.” I finally find the strength to raise my eyes to him though my head hurts so badly that I just want to lie down.

“Was that speech for me?” he asks. What? What is he talking about?

“Huh?” It’s the only thought I can formulate.

“You’ve been burned. You don’t trust anybody. Things you thought you were certain of; putting your fate in someone else’s hands—that’s more than just a couple of bad media experiences. Was that speech for me?”

I play the words over in my head, then review my feelings about them. Had this happened before the whole Liam/Madrid Mayhem—when the footage was recorded—I would feel differently. I was bad-ass when I discovered Grip Boy had filmed me in the nursery. I was ready to put him on the platter and serve him at the luau. Now, I’m fucking afraid of shit that goes “bump” in the night when I wasn’t before. I was able to deal with adversity and handle myself in tough situations and now, I kind of prefer to just hide in the corner until the adversity passes. That’s not me. That’s never been me… except when someone talked about or uncovered something about Green Valley.

Scary, vicious teenage mobs that attack you from behind, torture you, and leave you for dead…

Uncertainty of where in America—or the world—these bastards have landed…

The Boogeyman…
The Boogeyman…
Fuck, the Boogeyman…

I gaze at Christian and I’m unable to answer him. In all my pondering and wondering and trying to figure out an answer for him, all the fear and uncertainty and pain and anguish and the Boogeyman all go into the three-second funnel and come out with one word.

Yes.

I don’t have to say it. He reaches over to me and gathers me in his arms, holding me close to him and kissing my hair.

“I’m so sorry,” he whispers. “I’m so, so sorry…”

I want to respond that it’s not all his fault, that my actions—or lack thereof—were the catalyst for his behavior; that we’re both human and we make mistakes and that’s okay, but none of that will chase the Boogeyman away.

We sit there for several minutes with Christian kissing my hair and trying to reassure me that everything will be alright. As sweet and sincere as his gestures are, I know that I and the Boogeyman have several more rounds to spar, and I’m under no misconception that I’m not going to win them all. I’m just terrified at the concept of how many of them that I could lose.

I hear Vee clear her throat from the hallway before Christian releases me and allows me to sit upright in my seat. I drink the rest of my orange juice and try a few calming breaths as Vee enters the room with Maria close behind her.

“I’m sorry,” Vee says. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“It’s fine,” Christian excuses her. I still feel like shit. “Maria, I must inform you that my wife is quite concerned with how this matter has been handled thus far. Things have been sloppy; there has been no show of any kind of level of care when it comes down to the footage of our personal lives. We found out through word of mouth that footage of our home had already been aired. We should have heard that from you. You should have been contacting us with reassurances that this situation was a one-off and well in hand. We don’t feel that way now, and my wife is more uneasy than I can describe. I don’t like that… not one bit!”

I hear the protector coming out. I can see that he’s ready to battle for me, but I need more than that. What, I don’t know, but more.

“Ana,” Maria’s voice begins. I don’t make eye contact with her, “no amount of apology that I can offer can possibly restore your faith in me. All I can say is let me show you. Let me show you the promos and what I’ve done—even the promo that was accidentally shown last week. Even though you didn’t approve it beforehand, I can assure you that you won’t be disappointed with the presentation. We’ve gotten off to a rocky start and I and my network didn’t handle things like we should have, but please, give me a chance to make this up to you… to show you that you didn’t make the wrong choice.

“A story like this could make or break someone in this business, but I swear to you—getting a big story and shock value is not worth a lawsuit or losing my credibility or my career. I swear to you on my honor and my integrity, I won’t let anything be aired that you don’t approve. I give you my word. I’ll sleep with the reels if I need to if that will convince you.”

I almost want to demand her ass to sleep with the reels, but right now, I just need to see what’s on them.

“You need to understand that I’m not the only one that’ll be affected by what’s on that film,” I tell her, trying to steady my shaking voice. “My father, his wife, my brother… my children… our friends and family…”

I’m getting choked up by the magnitude of what could happen if this interview material is abused or misconstrued in any way.

“Ana, I know this hasn’t been the most reliable situation that you’ve dealt with so far, but I have the entire network’s attention on this one. There will be no more mistakes, I swear to you.” I hope the fuck you’re right.

“Maria,” I say, my voice shaking and unable to mask my fear and uncertainty any longer, “those are powerful words, but if you betray me, so help me…”

My sentence trails off, but that’s only because there are no words to explain the extent of hell that I would unleash on this woman if she does anything deceptive whatsoever. And these little faux pas that her network keeps doing, I will fucking own my own media outlet after this.

“Anastasia, you have my word,” she says, never breaking eye contact with me. I don’t acquiesce in any way. I don’t want her to think she has won me over other that I am even giving her the slightest chance to fuck me. It’s exactly the opposite. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the fucking enemy until this show airs.

“Let’s see what’s on these damn reels,” I say, standing up and heading for the theater room.


A/N: So that no one will be disappointed or say that I led them on, the next chapter will not reveal the interview. They will discuss what will and will not stay, but the full interview will not be posted/shared until the day it is aired, and everyone sees it at the same time.

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 ~~love and handcuffs